Farmers risk losing control over what they grow on their own land because of corporate interference, say producers who are challenging attempts by American biotech giant Monsanto Inc. to introduce genetically modified wheat.
And consumers could also lose their freedom of choice when it comes to buying food that is free of artificial genetic modification, say concerned farmers.
U.S.-based Monsanto, which has already genetically altered canola to be resistant to Monsanto’s trademark Roundup herbicide, also has similar plans to introduce GM (genetically modified) wheat in Canada – a move critics say could threaten international markets.
If Monsanto is successful, Canada would be the first country to grow GM wheat.
“The risk of losing our markets is not worth what you might gain,” says Bill Dobson, president of Alberta’s Wild Rose Agricultural Producers, the province’s largest producer-driven and general farm policy group.
The Canadian Wheat Board claims more than 80 per cent of its customers may stop buying Canadian wheat if the country starts growing GM wheat.
“There’s also some discomfort that comes with being more and more tied to large companies,” Dobson says. “People should have the right to produce their own seed. But when you grow Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola, you give up the right to the seed.”
More than 30,000 canola farmers in Western Canada pay Monsanto about $15 per acre each year to use Monsanto seeds. However, farmers who sign contracts with the company agree not to use that crop’s seeds the next year. The GM canola seeds must be purchased each year from Monsanto, which has its international headquarters in St. Louis, Mo.
Monsanto Canada has already completed three years of testing on several lines of its GM wheat, but says it doesn’t intend to put forward any varieties for registration this year. A company spokesman told reporters last month that Monsanto wants to ensure there is both market acceptance and an appropriate grain-handling system before launching Roundup Ready wheat into the market.
The Wild Rose Agricultural Producers support GMO technology because, in many cases, it produces greater yields and reduces chemical use, says Dobson, who grows Roundup Ready canola on his farm near Wainwright. “But you have to take each case separately,” he adds.
While there’s market acceptance of GM canola, Dobson says, the same isn’t true of GM wheat.
The controversial topic of large corporations controlling GM crops on farmers’ lands surfaced in Calgary recently when 73-year-old Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser – who is being sued by Monsanto over GMOs – spoke at the University of Calgary. The patent infringement case is now before the Supreme Court of Canada.
During his presentation, Schmeiser questioned whether any company has the right to patent a higher life form.
“What right has any individual or company to put something into the environment that will destroy the rights of others?” says Schmeiser, who stirred up the crowd of about 50 people at the university.
But, “it’s the right of the farmer to be able to save and replant their seeds every year,” he says. If GM seeds are in the system, he notes, a farmer has no guarantee that his saved seed will not be contaminated by unwanted GM seeds.
“You cannot contain cross-contamination. You can’t build a wall high enough to keep it out,” he says. “The (GM) gene is a dominant gene, so it will take over any species it gets into.” And it is impossible to get rid of because it has been modified to survive herbicides, he adds.
The executive director of BioAlberta – an advocacy group for the province’s biotechnology firms – agrees cross- contamination is an issue.
“It is an issue that has to be addressed,” says Myka Osinchuk. And companies also need to be sensitive to market and consumer demands, she adds.
“Canada is one of the leading growers of biotech crops, and there is a growing awareness of (the good things) bio-crops can do,” she says. “But if countries are unwilling to accept certain GM products, then it makes no sense to produce them.”
Dwayne Smith, president of Grainworks Inc., an Alberta-based organic grain company that ships its product across Western Canada, agrees that “just because the technology is there doesn’t mean it is something we should do. There are some moral issues tied up with this.”
Farmers have reaped the benefits of technology for years, says Smith, but there comes a time when benefits are solely for shareholders.
“And there are some lines I just don’t think should be crossed. This is entering the same area as human cloning, which society is resisting,” says Smith, who was the first president of the Canadian Organic Advisory Board.
Smith says his company, located near Vulcan in southern Alberta, will one day handle everything from production and processing to marketing. “It’s a way to prevent cross-contamination, and to get away from relying on agri-business.”
Once GM seeds have been introduced, it’s difficult to turn back, says Schmeiser, who notes it’s now difficult to find any “pure” canola seed.
It may be too late to reverse GM canola, but consumers and farmers still have time to challenge the introduction of GM wheat, Schmeiser says.
Many farmers were quick to sign contracts for GM canola, unaware of the demands appearing in small print, he says. “And they were never told it could destroy conventional or organic farming.”
Farmers are quick to embrace new technology, often without questioning it, Smith adds. “But there’s a significant risk of loss of autonomy on your own land (with these contracts). The corporation ends up controlling your land.”
Once companies control the land, people start to lose their freedom of choice, including consumers, Schmeiser says. “The companies start controlling the food you eat, and yet 78 per cent of people don’t want GMO food.”
The Canadian Wheat Board has informed Monsanto that customers in 82 per cent of its markets have serious reservations about buying GM wheat.
Outside Canada, Japan is Canada’s largest export market for wheat. “Japan, Italy and the U.K. have said they would absolutely not buy Canadian wheat (if GM wheat is introduced),” says Patty Rosher, a CWB senior program manager in market development.
Countries that refuse to import Canadian wheat will turn to Australia and Europe, which are GM-free, says Rosher. “To lose these exports could cost us hundreds of millions of dollars a year,” she says.
In Saskatchewan, a group of organic farmers is also trying to launch a class- action suit against Monsanto Canada Inc. and Aventis Cropscience Canada Holding Inc. of Regina.
The farmers are claiming alleged loss of the European organic canola market due to the introduction of GM canola. They believe that genetic drift from GM crops threatens their organic fields, resulting in loss of their organic certification.
Smith of Grainworks Inc. sympathizes with the farmers, and fears GM crops could contaminate conventional and organic farms. “Pollen drift from wheat may not be as significant as that from canola, but where do you draw the line?” he says. “Without keeping processing and storage facilities separate, it is almost impossible to prevent contamination,” he adds.