Wheat issue returns

New life appears to be growing in the debate over genetically modified wheat, but experts say old seeds of doubt still abound.

REGINA — New life appears to be growing in the debate over genetically modified wheat, but experts say old seeds of doubt still abound.

Five years after biotech giant Monsanto was forced to shelve plans for its Roundup Ready wheat, a coalition of Canadian, American and Australian farm groups recently reached an agreement on what they call “the goal of synchronized commercialization of biotech traits in our wheat crops.”

Agricultural economist Murray Fulton says the move is not surprising.

“I thought for a while this debate was dead, though I knew of course at some point it would come back,” says Fulton, who teaches at the University of Saskatchewan.

“You don’t have the technology like that out there that’s got some potential without certain groups saying ‘We’d like to see it put into practice.’ It was almost inevitable that it was going to come back as an issue.”

The groups raising the issue include the Grain Growers of Canada, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association and the Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission.

They say farmers have seen wheat yields stagnate in comparison to canola, corn and soybeans and that wheat acreage in Canada is in danger of declining even more unless there is innovation in plant breeding.

While the agreement refers to commercialization, Grain Growers president Doug Robertson insists that doesn’t mean genetically modified wheat will be on store shelves any time soon.

“It’s not saying let’s willy-nilly release this stuff out into the marketplace. I don’t think there’s an endorsement amongst the three countries to do that,” said Robertson in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“We just wanted to make sure that the work on the technology didn’t come to a full stop, that it was allowed to develop.”

The Monsanto Roundup Ready wheat was engineered to resist herbicides. The intent was to enable farmers to use more herbicide on weeds without killing their crops.

But opposition in 2004 was strong, especially overseas.

Many export markets, including Japan and the European Union, warned they would stop buying wheat from Canada if any of it was genetically modified.

The concern was that there would be no way of preventing the genetically modified wheat from mixing with other crops.

Others feared the genetically modified wheat might not be safe to eat.

Robertson disagrees.

“This Frankenfood kind of scare mongering that goes on all the time with GM stuff is just that.

“It really is not based on sound science,” he said.

The Grain Growers and other groups argue that biotechnology in wheat research could lead to the development of traits to improve wheat yields and quality.

That could include making the wheat drought tolerant or improving disease resistance.

There could be traits to make the wheat friendly to people with Celiac’s disease, said Robertson.

It’s estimated that it could take six to eight years for new biotech wheat varieties to reach commercial introduction. The groups say that’s why now is the time to signal both seed developers and policy makers that many farmers are eager to see action.

But other farm groups are hoping to bury the idea again.

Fifteen organizations in Australia, the U.S. and Canada have issued their own statement pledging to stop the commercialization of genetically engineered traits in wheat crops.

“GE wheat is a potential disaster of huge proportions,” said Terry Bohem, vice-president of the National Farmers Union in Canada.

Bohem, who farms in Allan, Sask., said Canadian farmers who rely heavily on the export market would likely lose many customers.

There have also been problems with other genetically modified crops, including rapid contamination of the conventional seed stocks,” he said.

Percy Schmeiser, from Bruno, Sask., says he knows that situation well.

In 1998, Monsanto took Schmeiser and his wife to court for using its genetically modified patented canola seeds without a licence, seeking damages totalling $400,000.

The farmers denied they had used the seeds, saying they could have blown over from a neighbour’s farm or passing trucks.

The Supreme Court eventually ruled Schmeiser infringed Monsanto’s valid patent on a gene it inserted into canola plants, although he did not have to pay the damages.

Schmeiser said he’s “really surprised” the debate has resurfaced.

“No matters who tells you what … there is no such thing as co-existence, there’s no such thing as containment,” said Schmeiser.

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