Education essential for GM wheat to fly

Address critics | Wheat commission says biotech sector has to inform consumers of the benefits

The general manager of the nascent Alberta Wheat Commission says genetically modified wheat is inevitable as a Canadian crop, perhaps within the next decade.

Rick Istead told the House of Commons agriculture committee Nov. 20 it will be a necessary development because wheat yields have to in-crease and the crop must become more efficient in using water and fertilizer.

“I believe GMO wheat will come eventually,” he said. “I’m not sure when exactly that will be. Some predict within the next 10 years. We know there are developments currently underway.”

He acknowledged that there still is resistance in some markets so the development must be co-ordinated and come with significant effort to win over consumers.

“It needs to continue to be science based and that technology as we develop it, we’ll need to do a much better job of educating and communicating the value of the technology and why it is necessary and not be afraid of addressing our critics,” he told MPs.

Istead said research in Australia has shown the potential of 30 percent yield increases with GMO wheat varieties.

He was immediately challenged by anti-GMO New Democratic Party MPs.

British Columbia MP Alex Atam-anenko said the Australian results are preliminary.

“According to the research I’ve done, there’ve been no major increases in yield through GM,” he said.

“It’s all been through good conventional breeding with any crop in the world.”

He wondered if the industry has the strength to resist the next attempt to introduce the technology now that the CWB’s export monopoly is gone. The board was one of the strong critics of earlier attempts to bring GM wheat to Canada.

Quebec New Democrat Francine Raynault asked why Canada should risk alienating traditional markets by embracing GM technology for wheat.

“We have to be able to demonstrate to the customer, the consumer, the benefits or value that GM technology brings to them and to the market,” said Istead.

It will require education of foreign consumers and the assurance of a scientific evaluation that GM products on the market shelf are safe and equivalent to products derived from conventional plant breeding.

However, he conceded market acceptance will be a challenge.

“Unfortunately, there’s a significant portion of the population who are not in favour of GMOs and biotechnology,” said Istead.

“I lived in Europe when that issue was really a problem over there. I think we’re beginning to see signs that the Europeans are starting to have a little more tolerance for it.”

He thinks consumers will eventually start to see the value of it.

“What we need to convince them of is that long-term, there is no risk associated with the technology.”

Atamanenko, with side comments about B.C. opposition to a GM non-browning apple variety, indicated he is not about to be convinced about the long-term safety of the technology.

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