The shelving of biotech giant Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) wheat has brought relief to Alberta’s organic producers, but disappointment to some grain farmers.
The multinational giant suspended research and development on its GM Roundup Ready Wheat last week, after deciding there wasn’t enough market acceptance to make it economically worthwhile. It denied it was pressured into the decision by lobby groups opposed to genetically modified foods.
“There is a lack of industry alignment from producers and farm organizations on how to introduce biotech wheat,” said Winnipeg-based Monsanto Canada Inc. spokeswoman Trish Jordan.
Monsanto, which has international headquarters in St. Louis, Mo., already produces genetically altered canola that is resistant to its trademark Roundup herbicide. And company officials say they intend to continue work on developing new biotech traits that would improve crop resistance to drought and specific diseases.
Some grain producers wanted GM wheat, noted Jordan, while others did not. The challenge remains on how to introduce GM wheat, while still respecting those who choose to grow conventional wheat, she added.
Monsanto may reconsider selling its GM wheat in the future if it senses wider industry acceptance, Jordan said.
The Canadian Wheat Board opposed GM wheat, claiming 80 per cent of its markets indicated they would stop buying Canadian wheat if its farmers began growing GM wheat. Canada would have been the first country to grow GM wheat.
Genetically modified crops are engineered to resist herbicides, allowing farmers to spray them for weed control without damaging the crop.
For Cochrane-area grain producer Tim Harvie, the news from Monsanto was not good.
“I’m not even saying I would have grown it, but farmers need to have choices, to have options. Biotech is the way of the future, and I think it’s a shame this happened,” Harvie said.
With farmers struggling through consecutive years of drought and sagging grain prices, GM wheat would have provided “another tool to grow an economical crop,” Harvie noted. GM crops provide superb weed control and can increase yields, or at least maintain a healthy yield during drought years, he added.
Harvie cannot understand why GM wheat is so controversial, since other GM crops, such as corn, cotton and oilseeds, are widely accepted. “I guess it’s because wheat is still considered a staple of our diet. Bread is still a basic product.”
Bob Hymas, an Alberta Grain Commission board director, has been growing Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola for five years, but he agreed with the company’s decision to pull GM wheat.
“We need more safeguards. We have to be careful with GM wheat, because we don’t fully understand its potential impact,” said Hymas, who farms at Rosebud, east of Calgary.
Canada could not risk losing the Japanese market, its largest market outside Canada, he added.
The Asian market and the European Union were among the countries threatening to curtail imports of Canadian wheat if Monsanto had commercialized GM wheat.
The Canadian Wheat Board feared those countries would have turned to Australia and Europe for GM-free wheat, costing millions of dollars in lost exports.
Alberta’s Wild Rose Agricultural Producers, which represents more than 1,000 farmers, applauded Monsanto’s decision. “We are not against GM products, but the timing was not right for GM wheat,” said president Bill Dobson. “The risk of losing market share is not worth its benefits. The farmers aren’t ready for (GM wheat), and the consumers are not ready for it.”
Promoting GM wheat on the merits of being herbicide-tolerant was “not a good sell-ing point,” Dobson said. “Acceptance is going to have to come from some other reason.”
Other groups also applauded the decision.
“This is a tremendous victory for consumers everywhere,” said Nadège Adam of the Council of Canadians. “No matter how Monsanto frames this, it is very much a full retreat from a project that was doomed from the beginning. This is a serious blow for this company and for the commercialization of genetically engineered (GE) crops in Canada.”
The council said it planned, in concert with other groups, to continue a campaign against GE food until the government agrees to a moratorium on all future GE crops.
In a recent visit to Calgary, Saskatchewan grain farmer Percy Schmeiser encouraged producers and consumers to fight the introduction of GM wheat.
He said he feared farmers could lose control of their land once they signed contracts to grow GM Roundup Ready Wheat, and that consumers were in danger of losing the option of buying non-GM food.
Monsanto is suing Schmeiser for having Roundup Ready canola growing on his farm, but the farmer denies planting the crop, saying GM seed was either blown into his field or fell off passing trucks.
Unlike canola, volunteer wheat is not easy to kill, Dobson added. (A volunteer plant is one that grows where it is no longer wanted or intentionally seeded). “Eventually, GM wheat would be in everything we grow. It’s difficult to keep out.”
Each GM product needs to be assessed case by case, said Stewart Wells, president of the Saskatoon-based National Farmers Union. “Roundup Ready wheat had so many problems. There was resistance from consumers and from farmers.”
Monsanto’s decision will no doubt renew the debate over GM foods, as biotech work continues in such crops as corn and soybeans, Wells said.
Environmentalists oppose GM crops, fearing they create super weeds as stronger chemicals have to be used to kill strains that have become herbicide-tolerant because of genetic alteration.
The battle over GM wheat may not be over, Wells said, noting that Monsanto has not yet cancelled its application to the federal government to sell GM wheat.
Organic producers have also protested GM crops, believing that pollen drift from such plants jeopardizes their crops and livelihood. About 12.5 per cent of Canada’s agricultural land mass is now cultivated with GM crops.
“Anytime we see retrenching like this, it’s positive,” said Tony Marshall of Highwood Crossing Farm at Aldersyde, south of Calgary. “This is great news, and hopefully it’s for the long term.”