Plant physiologist says Monsanto's RR wheat a "folly"/GM's unwelcome underperformers bring multiple problems (20/8/2003)

"genetically modified crops have served to enrich biotech companies at the expense of financially strapped farmers, expose non-adopters of GM to the unavoidable risk of lawsuits, eliminate organic canola-growing in the west [of Canada], contaminate the food supply with genetically modified crops that consumers don't want, and compromise the marketability of our crops to off-shore buyers." - Dr Clark (item 2)

2 excellent pieces from Canadian experts:
August 19, 2003
Guelph Mercury [based on report on Agnet]

Professor Ann Oaks, FRSC, (plant physiologist), Guelph, writes to respond to Terry Daynard's article "I have sinned: I grow genetically modified products" (The Guelph Mercury, Aug. 9)

Oaks says she has been foolish enough to critisize the introduction of herbicide tolerant canola and she is concerned that we are about to make the same mistake with wheat.

When Roundup Ready canola was introduced, farmers were promised three things:

1)    higher yields,
2)    requirements for lower levels of round-up and
3)    the right to choose.

In the intervening five years or so because of pollen drift and other factors that are difficult to control farmers' fields were contaminated with Roundup Ready-canola, and, in fact, scientists at Ag Canada in Saskatoon (Downie and Beckie, 2002) and in the Plant Science Department at the University of Manitoba (Van Acker et al, 2003, Agronomy J, in press) have confirmed that pedigreed canola seed cannot be guaranteed genetically modified-free.

Farmers no longer have the possibility of choosing GM-free seed should they not want the Roundup Resistant-canola variety. That is wrong and that, I think, was the main point of Michael Meacher's talk.

Now we are asked to consider RR-wheat. Oaks says she went to the experts for answers to two questions:

1)    Would there be contamination with wheat as there has been with canola? The answer from scientists at the University of Guelph, and from scientists based in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Lethbridge was an unqualified "yes". Within five years we can expect a contamination of pedigreed wheat seed as serious as that which we have with canola. Again the farmer opting to grow GM-free wheat will have no choice.

2)    Why do we want Roundup Resistant wheat?

Oaks says she is told there is no weed problem either in Ontario or on the prairies. However Clarence Swanton, chair of the Plant Agriculture Department at the University of Guelph mentioned a problem with wild oats.

Currently in the west farmers practice low till or no till farming to reduce the ravages of erosion. In the spring they treat fields with Roundup to kill weeds, wait two weeks for the Roundup to biodegrade and then plant the wheat.

This works well. If there is contamination with Roundup Resistant wheat other less benign herbicides will be required when the farmer uses crop rotation, a practice recommended on prairie farms.

We would be irresponsible to introduce Roundup Resistant wheat until such a time that we can prevent contamination.

Oak's complaint with the plant science establishment at the University of Guelph is that knowing that there was no problem with weeds they should have warned the decision-makers of Monsanto Corporation that this was a bad approach.

The techniques of recombinant DNA technology are great and in time will, I think, contribute something of value to the farmer. For example, colleagues of mine in France and Japan are examining approaches that will allow wheat to use applied nitrogen more efficiently.

This is an approach that Monsanto should be encouraged to follow. Experts should be warning government administrators at all levels of government of the folly of accepting the introduction of Roundup Resistant wheat.
Guelph Mercury, August 14, 2003 [based on report on Agnet]
E. Ann Clark, Ph.D., an associate professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph writes that she has read with interest the dialogue surrounding the recent Guelph visit of Michael Meacher, former Minister of the Environment in the UK.
In response to anecdotal evidence provided by Terry Daynard in "I have sinned: I grow genetically modified crops" (The Guelph Mercury, Aug. 9) on crop performance on his farm, Clark says that information from

*the United States Department of Agriculture (Fernandez-Cornejo and McBride, 2002;  www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aer810/),

*from Charles Benbrook 1999 (www.biotech-info.net/RR_yield_drag_98.pdf) and 2001 (www.biotech- info.net/troubledtimes.html)] -- former Chair of the Board on Agriculture of the U.S. National Academy of Science --

*and from the scientific literature (Elmore et al., 2002a and b; Agron. J. 93(2):404-407 and 408-412)  

show that contrary to Daynard's favorable experience, independent analysts have not found that Roundup Ready soybeans yield more, reduce herbicide use, or increase farmer profits.
Clark says that the United States Department of Agriculture found that Roundup Ready soy yields would increase by a scant 0.3 per cent, if 10 per cent of U.S. soybean growers adopted the Roundup Ready technology. In contrast, a range of industry, university, and state-sponsored surveys summarized by Benbrook showed that Roundup Ready soybean yields averaged five to 10 per cent less than conventional soybeans.
As shown by Elmore and colleagues, Roundup Ready soy yield is reduced even between hand-weeded (unsprayed) lines differing only in the presence of the Roundup Ready gene. So, the yield drag cannot be explained as an artefact caused by the Roundup itself or from comparing genetically different lines. Indeed, because they are not bred for higher yield, the only way that Roundup Ready crops could "increase yield" would be if other herbicides or approaches proved unequal to the task of suppressing a heavy weed population.
United States Department of Agriculture researchers reported that Roundup Ready soy requires more, not less, active ingredients (a.i.) per acre than competing herbicides, many of which are designed to act at very small concentrations. Using typical U.S. tank mixes, herbicide rates on farms range from 0.84 to 2.63 kg a.i./ha for Roundup Ready soybeans versus 0.09 to 1.68 kg a.i./ha for conventional cultivars (Table 1.10; Benbrook, 2001). The net effect is that Roundup Ready soybean growers are now applying about 0.56 kg/ha more herbicide -- or nine million kg more herbicide a year in the U.S.
While Roundup Ready soybeans don't reduce herbicide use, they have allowed producers to replace more toxic herbicides with Roundup, which is much less hazardous to human health. However, this benefit is short-lived, because overuse of Roundup on Roundup Ready-crops has already selected for resistance or tolerance to Roundup in several key weed species, obliging producers to revert to additional herbicides or more applications of Roundup. U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers attributed a net reduction of 2.5 million pounds pesticide a.i. to the adoption of genetically modified corn, soy, and cotton crops, primarily due to Bt-cotton in some states. As calculated from ERS-USDA figure (www.ers.usda.gov/Data/cropproductionpractices/ShowTables.asp), total pesticide use on corn, soy, and cotton in 2000 was about 327 million lb. Thus, converting 68 per cent of U.S. soybean acreage to HT soybean, 56 per cent of U.S. cotton acreage to HT cotton, 19 per cent of U.S. corn acreage to Bt corn, and 37 per cent of U.S. cotton acreage to Bt cotton reduced pesticide use by 2.5 of 327 million lb or a barely distinguishable 0.7 per cent in pesticide a.i.. The premise that Roundup Ready soy or Bt corn reduce pesticide use is unsupported.
Clark says that the reference to the Wilson farm market study assessing preference for Bt- versus non-genetically modified sweet corn warrants elaboration. In particular, refer to Chapter 4 of a new text by Stuart Laidlaw of the Toronto Star, entitled Secret Ingredients.
The tenor of the trial, which was run by Doug Powell, a risk communicator at the University of Guelph, is reflected in a photo taken at the Wilson farm market. Above the non-genetically modified sweet corn bin is a sign: "Would You Eat Wormy Sweet Corn?"
Regular Sweet Corn: insecticides: carbofuran sprayed 3X or Bt foliar spray sprayed 1X; Fungicide: Bravo sprayed once; Herbicide and Fertilizer: 1 application of each".
In contrast, the Bt-sweet corn bin was labelled: "Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn,"followed by a list of fertilizers, with the fact that it was Bt-corn shown on a separate sign. Given the clear experimental bias introduced by the label wording, Laidlaw's key finding was that consumers were nonetheless willing to buy 5000 cobs of "wormy" (versus 8000 cobs of "quality") sweet corn -- clearly indicating consumer distrust of, rather than preference for, Bt sweet corn.
Clark goes on to ask, why do farmers continue to buy genetically modified seed? If genetically modified crops do not perform as promised, then why do farmers continue to buy the seed, and specifically the genetically modified canola which so disturbed Meacher? Understanding that HT and mostly Roundup Ready canola accounts for all the genetically modified canola sold in western Canada, several reasons could be offered:

1)    To make weed control more convenient, as suggested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers. This is particularly plausible where ecologically unsound crop management practices have produced a large population of intractable weeds;
2)    To avoid the risk of a lawsuit. Percy Schmeiser, a 72 year old Saskatchewan canola grower, was found guilty of patent infringement when Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene was found in his canola, despite the fact that the contamination was inadvertent, that he didn't benefit from it, and that he couldn't have avoided it.
His case, which has already cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars, will be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada in January 2004;
3)    To access other desired traits, The same seed companies which offer genetically modified cultivars also control the seed supply of non-genetically modified cultivars. Seed of the best varieties may be in limited supply, unless fitted with a genetically modified trait; or
4)    To deal with the problem of contamination in non-genetically modified seed. Seed companies no longer guarantee that non-genetically modified seed is actually genetically modified free, for the same reasons that Schmeiser's fields were contaminated.
Clark concludes that genetically modified crops have served to enrich biotech companies at the expense of financially strapped farmers, expose non-adopters of GM to the unavoidable risk of lawsuits, eliminate organic canola-growing in the west, contaminate the food supply with genetically modified crops that consumers don't want, and compromise the marketability of our crops to off-shore buyers.

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