Listen up, Ottawa: no GM wheat! (27/8/2003)

Even those countries that embraced GM crops apparently enthusiastically in the mid-1990s are now facing fierce opposition when it comes to the question of approving new GMOs. From provincial governments to farmers to academics to buyers, all are saying keep our produce GM-free or risk destroying our markets with all the potentially devastating consequences that will flow from that for our farm economy.

Now too, some interesting questions are beginning to be posed as to just why some national governments are so hell-bent on ignoring all opposition. Take, for instance, GM-supporting Canada:

"Is it possible that Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC) and the Minister of Agriculture are fully aware of the potential harm that their acceptance of GM wheat could cause wheat producers, but have nevertheless opted to do whatever could benefit the biotech companies?

"Given the importance of future research investment to the overall Canadian economy, as well as the political support that the corporate sector can offer, the government may have decided it is desirable to let GM registration proceed. There are strong corporate links among biotech industries, the AAFC, provincial research programs, and a variety of farm groups. The result may be that corporate interests come before producer interests in the federal agenda." (item 3)

As Jeanette Fitzsimons warned her fellow New Zealanders this week, "Countries that embraced GM food in the mid-1990s were ignorant and careless. Countries that voluntarily give up their coveted GM-free status now are being deliberately and obstinately foolish." (GM industry falling apart worldwide,

* Sask. government opposes GM wheat
* Most farmers say no to growing GM wheat
* Listen up, Ottawa: no GM wheat
* Egyptian wheat buyers tell U.S. "buyers don't want it"
Sask. government opposes GM wheat
by Jason Warick
The Leader-Post, Canada, Aug 8, 2003

The Saskatchewan government is adding its voice to the growing chorus of opposition to genetically modified (GM) wheat, breaking its silence on the highly controversial issue.

Officials from Saskatchewan Agriculture, Food and Rural Revitalization plan to send a letter soon to Ottawa to outline their concerns.

The provincial government is a strong supporter of agricultural biotechnology, but officials worry about the potentially devastating impact GM wheat could have on the Prairie farm economy. Canadian wheat exports total nearly $3 billion per year.

The federal government is considering letting agribusiness giant Monsanto sell its GM wheat to Canadian farmers.

In an interview with the Saskatchewan News Network, Jim Stalwick of Saskatchewan Agriculture, Food and Rural Revitalization said there are "a number of pressures building" around the GM-wheat issue, and the government feels compelled to speak out.

"The (Saskatchewan) government has a view that it should not be approved until the market concerns are addressed and the agronomic environmental concerns as well," said Stalwick, manager of the department's strategic planning unit.

"Clearly we're monitoring it."

Stalwick confirmed the Saskatchewan government will write to Ottawa in the near future."

The province fears federal regulators will only look at the narrow scientific issues around GM wheat and ignore the massive economic consequences.

More than 80 per cent of the countries surveyed this year by the Canadian Wheat Board said they won't accept any GM wheat.

If GM wheat was grown in Canada, these countries could boycott all Canadian wheat, critics say.

This is because there is no effective way to segregate GM and non-GM wheat for export. Canada's entire system would be perceived as contaminated.

Monsanto has promised not to sell any GM wheat seed to Canadian farmers until markets are more accepting.

But Japan, Europe and others might not wait until GM wheat is actually planted.

Federal approval might be enough for them to close their borders to Canadian wheat, wheat board officials predict.

The crisis in Canada's beef industry from the single case of mad cow disease in an Alberta cow shows how jittery foreign markets can be, critics say.

"The buyers are afraid of (GM wheat), and the customer is always right," said Jim Hallick, a director with the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM) who farms near Sturgis.

SARM, the wheat board, and other major farm groups are part of a large coalition demanding Monsanto withdraw its GM wheat application, but Monsanto officials have refused.

The Saskatchewan Organic Directorate has gone a step further and filed a lawsuit asking the courts to block the introduction of GM wheat.

Stalwick said the province is also concerned about the impact of GM wheat on soil conservation practices.

Monsanto's Roundup Ready GM canola is already grown in Saskatchewan and is resistant to the herbicide Roundup.

If Roundup Ready GM wheat is also grown here, proper crop rotation between GM wheat and canola could prove difficult and costly, Stalwick said.

If federal regulators ignore these issues, "the provincial government will step in," he said.

Darrin Qualman, executive secretary of the National Farmers Union (NFU), welcomed the provincial government's stance. "We're glad they're taking seriously the interests of family farms. It's the right position to take," Qualman said.  "Nothing with this kind of potential negative impact on family farms should ever be commercialized."

The federal government isn't sure whether it will consider the economic impact of GM wheat in its review.  "We're looking at what role the government should play. We're at the analytical stage," said Jamie Oxley, deputy director of cross-sectoral policy development for Agriculture and Agri-food Canada.

The economic impact of GM wheat was a part of the federal GM wheat review process until last year, when officials removed the clause from the regulations.

Now, under intense pressure from the wheat board and others, Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief told his officials to study whether to reinstate the economic impact as a consideration in the review.  Vanclief did not respond to repeated interview requests.

Approval for GM wheat could even be granted before the federal department even makes up its mind on the economic issue, Oxley admitted.
Most farmers say no to growing GM wheat
by Jason Warick
The StarPhoenix, Canada, Aug 9, 2003

Nearly 90 per cent of farmers say they would not grow genetically modified (GM) wheat if they had the option, according to a survey conducted earlier this year.

A long list of organizations from the Canadian Wheat Board to the Canadian Health Coalition have already spoken out against GM wheat, but this is the first survey taken to gauge the opinions of farmers.

"The reaction was very strong," said Stephane McLachlan, a professor in the faculty of environment at University of Manitoba. "Farmers are really against this. They are categorically opposed to the release of GM wheat."

McLachlan supervises the work of doctoral student Ian Mauro, who surveyed more than 400 farmers from all regions of Manitoba this spring.

Eighty-seven per cent of respondents said they were opposed to growing GM wheat. A large majority of these farmers said they were "strongly opposed" to the idea, said Mauro.  The remaining 13 per cent were split between those who did want to grow GM wheat and those who were undecided.

"There is a very small group that thinks this crop would be good to grow now," said Mauro.  "But all it takes is a small minority to introduce GM wheat into the system."

Agriculture corporation Monsanto Canada has applied to federal regulators for permission to sell its GM wheat. The variety is resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, and may improve yields.

The organic-food industry fears GM wheat will contaminate their fields and make it impossible to grow organic wheat. Saskatchewan's organic- canola industry disappeared after the introduction of GM canola several years ago.

The wheat board, the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, and other farm and rural groups have taken out large newspaper ads urging Monsanto to withdraw its federal GM wheat application.

They worry that mere federal approval could be enough for anti-GM markets such as Europe and Japan to close their borders to all Canadian wheat.

"It's definitely a concern. (GM wheat) could definitely hurt us," said Tim Johnson, who farms with his father and two brothers 300 kilometres east of Saskatoon at Hyas.  "If the world accepts it, fine. If they don't, let's forget it."

Monsanto has refused to withdraw its application. Company president Peter Turner assures farmers that Monsanto will not sell any GM wheat until Europe and Japan are willing to accept it.  Monsanto will also hold off until there is an effective system to segregate GM wheat from other kinds, he said in an interview.

"There appears to be some fearmongering (but) they have nothing to fear," Turner said. "We're not going to get this registered and just steamroll it into the market."

The biggest reason farmers so strongly oppose the introduction of GM wheat is economic, McLachlan said.  "They're worried about their markets," he said.

When offered the hypothetical situation of markets not reacting negatively, survey results were more even. But a majority would still oppose growing GM wheat, he said.

Most farmers, in contrast, gave positive responses when asked about GM canola in U of M's earlier survey, McLachlan said.  This shows that even pro-GM farmers fear the consequences of GM wheat, he said.  McLachlan said farmers "have really been left out of the loop" in the debate.

McLachlan and Mauro plan to take more farmer surveys and conduct interviews across the Prairies on GM wheat this fall.
The Globe and Mail, Canada, Aug 11, 2003

GM wheat may be great, but our markets don't want it. Listen up, Ottawa: We want those markets, say agricultural academics MURRAY FULTON, HARTLEY FURTAN, RICHARD GREY and GEORGE KHACHATOURIANS

The discovery of a cow with BSE, and the closing of markets for Canadian beef in countries such as Japan and the United States, has underscored the importance of export markets for western Canadian agriculture. The Canadian beef industry has suffered huge losses. But the lessons of this setback may not have been learned by other sectors.

There's also a very real, though far less well-known, danger that Canada could lose a number of extremely important export markets for western Canadian wheat -- markets that include the U.S., Europe and Japan. Wheat is the second-largest revenue earner for grain and livestock farmers in western Canada after beef, and most of western Canada's wheat production is sold outside of the country. But Canada's reputation as a wheat producer may be lost if the Canadian government approves the licensing and commercialization of genetically modified (GM) wheat.

The key issue in the debate over licensing GM wheat is not about whether GM wheat is safe to grow, or whether it provides agronomic benefits. There are small but significant benefits to both farmers and the company supplying the technology. Rather, the issue is how the customers for Canada's wheat feel about the desirability of the GM version.

There is mounting evidence that many consumers, bakers, and millers -- in both domestic and foreign markets -- just do not want to buy GM wheat.

Indeed, the United States Bakers Association has stated that its members do not want to purchase GM wheat. Overseas markets, such as Europe and Japan, have also gone on record expressing their wish to avoid purchasing GM wheat.
 It would seem logical to adopt a strategy of letting wheat farmers choose between growing GM and non-GM wheat, depending on market signals. For one thing, GM wheat will provide agronomic benefits to some wheat producers. As for the price of GM wheat -- which we initially would expect to be lower than non-GM because of consumer resistance -- the market will sort out how much of each type is produced to best satisfy its requirements.

The trouble with this strategy is that it depends on farmers' ability to segregate the two types of wheat. But farmers' experience with GM canola shows how tricky that can be. And there's virtual consensus in the scientific community that it would be costly and difficult to keep GM and non-GM wheat separate for long.

If the two types of wheat can't be segregated, GM wheat will contaminate non-GM to the point where consumers will consider all Canadian wheat to be genetically modified. Then the price for all Canadian wheat will decline to the price of GM wheat, and markets such as Japan, the European Union and the U.S. will close their doors to Canadian wheat.

These markets are important to Canadian producers because they have either traditionally commanded higher prices (as in the case of Japan) or are nearby (the United States).

Thus, introducing GM versions of the crop can be expected to harm all markets for western Canadian wheat. And unlike BSE, this effect will likely be irreparable, because once GM wheat has been released, it will be impossible to remove it from the system.

Despite this, Ottawa has encouraged the registration of GM wheat in Canada. Why? One reason might be that the government believes that it can get away with a "damn the torpedoes" approach: If GM wheat is scientifically safe, then it should be licensed. Since Canada supports the research and development of GM food -- which in many cases is the proper policy decision -- the government wants to appear consistent. A second reason might be that the government, and other industry players, may be under pressure from private biotech companies to grant approval.

Is it possible that Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC) and the Minister of Agriculture are fully aware of the potential harm that their acceptance of GM wheat could cause wheat producers, but have nevertheless opted to do whatever could benefit the biotech companies?

Given the importance of future research investment to the overall Canadian economy, as well as the political support that the corporate sector can offer, the government may have decided it is desirable to let GM registration proceed. There are strong corporate links among biotech industries, the AAFC, provincial research programs, and a variety of farm groups. The result may be that corporate interests come before producer interests in the federal agenda.

A third explanation is that Ottawa has decided it has no role in considering the impact of new technologies on markets, and therefore should remain silent and let things run their course. The federal innovation agenda has been set, and related problems are ignored.

It's hard to reconcile this explanation with Ottawa's creation of the new Agricultural Policy Framework, under which the federal government is introducing and financially supporting "on-farm food-safety systems" and environmental farm plans to ensure that Canadian agricultural products command a premium in world markets. For the government to spend public resources to court consumers with promises of enhanced food safety (for food that is already safe), while at the same time introducing GM wheat -- which consumers fear -- is both hypocritical and wasteful.

Before moving ahead with promising new GM technology, Canada must have a full review and debate over its costs and benefits. Whatever the reasons for Ottawa's complacent decision to register GM wheat, the decision is of the utmost importance to the Prairie agricultural economy.

Murray Fulton, Hartley Furtan and Richard Grey are professors of agricultural economics at the University of Saskatchewan. George Khachatourians is professor of applied microbiology and food science.
Egyptian wheat buyers touch on biotech issue during first leg of U.S. tour
by Robert Schubert
CropChoice, USA,  Jul 22, 2003

(Tuesday, July 22, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- WASHINGTON -- Egyptian wheat industry representatives discussed a number of marketing issues, including credits and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with reporters this morning before traveling to Denver on the next leg of their two-week U.S. tour.

Egypt annually imports approximately 7 million metric tons of wheat, the majority of which comes from the United States, Australia and France. However, with higher prices resulting from last year's drought in North America and Australia, Egypt turned to cheaper imports from the Black Sea region. With the drought now gone and prices more reasonable, the officials present from the three major wheat buying and milling companies said they hope to re-enter the U.S. market, possibly buying 3 million metric tons of U.S. wheat this marketing year.

Egypt's mills grind approximately 4 million metric tons of primarily soft red and soft white winter wheat that the government's food procurer, the General Authority for Supply Commodities (GASC), annually imports to make subsidized bread. Wheat accounts for 80 percent of the bread and domestically grown white corn the other 20 percent. (Mahmoud Hassan, the GASC vice chairman, meant to accompany the private sector wheat buyers on the trip, but he was denied a visa.)

About 3 million metric tons of wheat are imported to make free-market flour.

Abou Zeid Abou-Zeid, chairman of Middle and West Delta Flour Mills Co. in Tanta, Egypt, said he wants to purchase U.S. hard red winter and spring wheats. Indeed, the officials agreed that around 80 percent of those varieties likely will come from the United States this year.

To ease such purchases, and to protect importers from Egyptian currency devaluations, the wheat industry officials met yesterday with U.S. Department of Agriculture officials to discuss new financing options through the Department's export credit programs.

The issue of genetically modified wheat, which Monsanto is developing and hopes to sell in the next year or two, also came up. Egyptian buyers, millers and consumers are opposed to it, said Hassan Abdel-Ghaffar, the Cairo-based senior marketing specialist and programs manager with U.S. Wheat Associates, the promoter of American wheat abroad. "They know GMO wheat is not in the pipeline now, but they don't want to see it," he said.

In the future, the country's agriculture and health authorities might approve transgenic wheat, in which case the government would have to "prepare consumers," said Magdy Moustafa, chairman of the October Company for Milling and Storage.

But for now, "buyers don't want it," Abdel-Ghaffar added.

Asked about a traceability regime on wheat imports if Monsanto's GM variety were to appear on the market before receiving Egypt's approval, he said it was possible. That would mean tracing American wheat imports back through the supply chain -- a costly proposition -- to ensure that biotech and conventional wheat weren't mixed.

The wheat buyers left today for Denver where they will meet with the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee. They will also travel to Kansas City, MO., Houston, and Portland, Ore., before returning to Cairo on Aug. 1.

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