GM wheat discovery prompts calls for changes

Players in the Canadian farm industry are calling for everything from a new grain handling system to a complete ban on genetically modified crops in the wake of another GM contamination incident.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed last week that Roundup Ready wheat volunteers were found growing in an 80-acre field in Oregon.

The news caught everybody by surprise because Monsanto abandoned its Roundup Ready wheat program in 2005. The company claims its process for closing out the program and disposing of the material was “rigorous, well-documented and audited.”

GM wheat has not been approved for sale or for planting in any country in the world.

Japan and South Korea have suspended imports of soft white wheat from the U.S. and the European Union announced it will be testing all wheat shipments for GM content once a test is developed.

The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) said the contamination incident was alarming but not unprecedented.

“Canadian farmers are still eliminating GM flax contamination that was discovered 10 years after farmers successfully stopped GM flax from entering the market,” said CBAN co-ordinator Lucy Sharratt. She accused the federal government of not caring about the economic impacts of contamination.

“We need a moratorium on all new GM crop approvals and field tests until the contamination risk is adequately recognized in regulation and the environmental, economic and social impacts are fully evaluated,” Sharratt said in a press release.

Trish Jordan, spokesperson for Monsanto Canada, said that is an over-reaction to an isolated case in another country where few facts have been uncovered.

She said the ability to conduct research is critical to bringing forward new traits and there is no reason to restrict the sale of those traits if they are proven safe through regulatory oversight.

Kevin Bender, past president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, also doesn’t want to see a moratorium on GM crop research.

The technology has allowed farmers to reduce tillage and pesticides and increase yields. Future traits could result in wheat resistant to ergot or fusarium.

“There is a lot of benefits to farmers and to consumers,” he said.

Jordan said the comparison to the 2009 Triffid flax incident was unfair. That crop was developed in the early days of the biotechnology industry by an independent researcher at the University of Saskatchewan.

“The protocols were significantly more stringent in the case of wheat trials,” she said.

Monsanto ran hundreds of Roundup Ready wheat trials in both Canada and the U.S. between 1998 and 2005. The last field trial in Oregon happened in 2001.

Triffid flax caused the near destruction of the European market when it was detected in shipments of Canadian flax. The USDA said there is no proof that Monsanto’s Roundup Ready wheat has entered the stream of commerce.

Monsanto said there is “considerable reason” to believe the presence of the trait is very limited and that it did not result from seed left in the soil or from pollen flow.

The company returned to the wheat breeding business in 2009 and is once again working on GM wheat, including herbicide tolerant wheat that was field tested in the U.S. last year.

Terry Boehm, president of the National Farmers Union, said the Oregon incident highlights the need to revisit laws surrounding who pays for damage caused by the technology in the form of decreased prices and lost markets.

“Farmers have always had to shoulder the market issues with the introduction of these products,” he said.

Boehm believes seed technology companies and the governments that approve their products should be picking up the tab.

“The liability piece is sorely missing,” he said.

Jordan said it is far too early to be seeking changes to regulations and laws. The USDA and Monsanto have only just started their separate investigations into the contamination incident.

“I think it would be premature to start calling for these sorts of extreme measures that would certainly put a damper on innovation,” she said.

Jeffrey Smyth, an Ontario-based international advisor to the largest baking and milling companies in Japan, hopes the Oregon case will be a catalyst for a shift to a segregated wheat handling system in North America.

“The current system can’t handle that so we should be taking the time now to prepare for a stream of wheat for Europe and Japan and other countries that don’t accept GM,” he said.

That is the only solution because seed technology companies are pressing forward with GM wheat and there is no reduction in opposition to the crop in markets like Japan.

“People have not been prepared to accept how serious a matter this is,” said Smyth.

“There is still a lot of people who say, ‘Oh well, the Japanese will buy GM. They will get over it. The price will be lower, so housewives will buy it.’ That just isn’t the case and I think we see that from this accident.”

He was expecting the issue to come to a head when some of the new research on GM wheat around the world was ready to be commercialized.

“The fact that this has happened in Oregon is very unexpected. Everyone thought that we were not going to have to deal with this for some more years,” said Smyth.

“This is exactly the kind of accident that many people have been worrying about and it has happened.”

He has spent the past year urging wheat groups in Canada and the United States to start preparing for the introduction of genetically modified wheat.

Smyth hopes the North American wheat industry finally recognizes that one of its biggest customers simply will not tolerate GM wheat.

“It’s not something that’s going to go away and the Japanese can always go back to eating rice,” said Smyth.

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