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Farmers fight introduction of Roundup Ready wheat in Canada

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(July 30, 2001 – CropChoice news) -- Saskatchewan farmer Nettie Wiebe opposes the plans of Monsanto to commercialize transgenic wheat in Canada. So does weed scientist Rene Van Acker. The same goes for cropping specialist Martin Entz, farmer Bill Toews, and the majority of the western Canadian farm groups representing the interests of farmers.

" Farmers have been less easy to dupe on this one," says Wiebe, former president of the National Farmers Union and grower of organic wheat, barley, mustard, lentils and peas. She’s referring the problems with the Monsanto wheat in terms of export marketing, segregation from conventional and organic varieties, and environmental effects.

The St. Louis-based transnational agriculture-biotechnology-chemical company and the Canadian federal agriculture ministry, known as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, together are genetically engineering wheat to resist the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). The date for commercialization is sometime between 2003 and 2005. Like its first generation of glyphosate-resistant crops – corn, soybeans and canola – Monsanto will name the wheat Roundup Ready. And like the seeds for that first batch of biotech, which public universities helped to engineer, Monsanto likely will patent this new wheat variety. This means that farmers who plant the seed will assume the role of lessees.

As part of the company policy of not speaking to CropChoice, Monsanto representatives refused to comment on any aspect of this story.

Market Rejection

Wiebe recalls what happened in 1997 following commercialization and planting of Roundup Ready canola in Canada. The Europeans rejected the crop, yet, she says,"the Canola Council didn’t raise a cry over it."

Indeed, the Canola Council of Canada, the country’s export marketer for canola, isn’t losing sleep over it. Europe never purchased a significant portion of the C$1.5 billion annual canola exports, says JoAnne Buth, vice president of crop production for the Council.

The story is very different for wheat, though. The Canadian Wheat Board, which is responsible for all wheat and barley exports, sells wheat, durum and barley to more than 70 countries. According to the Board’s website, www.cwb.ca, that translates into about 20 percent of the world market share in wheat, 65 per cent of durum wheat, 30 per cent of malting barley and 15 per cent of feed barley."

South of the border, in the United States, wheat growers have a lot on the line, too. For the last 10 years, the European Union and Japan have purchased about 45 percent of the wheat that the United States exports. They bought nearly 2.3 million of the 5.5 million tons of U.S. wheat exports in 1999-2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Many of those 70 countries have said they will reject Roundup Ready wheat or any wheat showing signs of transgenic contamination, says Bill Toews, a Manitoba commercial grower of wheat, canola, flax, barley and oats. If that happens, farmers could lose hundreds of millions of dollars.

"There is virtual consensus in western Canada that this is not where we want to go," says Toews, referring to the fact that numerous western Canadian farm organizations, representing tens of thousands of growers, are publicly opposing the commercialization of Roundup Ready wheat. These include the National Farmers Union, Western Wheat Growers, the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, the Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association and the Keystone Agriculture Producers, of which Toews is a member.

The following is a collection of comments from a few major wheat customers regarding their attitudes on transgenic wheat. They are directed to the major wheat growing countries – Canada, the United States, Argentina and Australia:

  • Tsutomu Shigota, senior managing director of the Japan Flour Millers Association, earlier this year told Reuters: "Under the circumstances, I strongly doubt that any bakery and noodle products made from genetically modified wheat or even conventional wheat that may contain modified wheat will be accepted in the Japanese market. World wheat supply has been abundant in recent years, and I don't see why we have to deal with modified wheat...I believe the production of modified wheat at this time will be a very risky challenge for U.S. producers."

  • Algeria, which imports large amounts of durum wheat from the United States, announced in January that it would not import any genetically modified wheat. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are taking a similar tack.

  • Jef Smidts of Andre & CIE Antwerp, a European importer and trader of U.S. wheat, wrote in a letter to U.S. wheat exporters: "We are absolutely convinced that the European miller will abandon GMO (genetically modified organism) hard red spring wheat...GMO wheat for sure will be a market destructor."

  • A letter from Julian Watson of Rank Hovis, one of the largest EU millers, read: "So that you are completely clear on Rank Hovis's policy toward GM wheat. We do not want any level of such grain in our supplies from you. To date, we have been able to say to our customers that GM wheat has not yet been brought to the market. This now needs to be backed up with preventative actions. Please advise us of what steps you have taken to ensure that GM wheat is prevented from entering or commingling with wheat in the entire spring wheat supply chain. You should treat this issue with the utmost gravity and priority given that the alarm generated by even the perception that spring wheat may contain GM traits, could be enough to jeopardize the entire export programme to the EU."

If Monsanto persists with transgenic wheat and if farmers plant it, Europe and Japan have other options. They could buy grain from Ukraine or Kazakstan, says Todd Leake, a North Dakota commercial wheat grower. Australia, a major wheat producer, still disallows all commercialization of transgenic crops; maintaining this policy could put its growers in a position to capture market share.

What is the Monsanto answer to these concerns? Segregation.

The Canadian Wheat Board wants to hold off on registration of all transgenic wheat until there is market acceptance and a reliable means of testing for and segregating Roundup Ready wheat, says Patty Rosher of the Canadian Wheat Board.

What is needed, she says, is a way to test varieties on the elevator driveways. But even the best system could not guarantee 100 percent purity. In Canada and the United States, grain processors work in a bulk system. And in Canada, at least, they visually distinguish grain kernels. Problem is, Roundup Ready wheat looks like other wheat.

The only way to distinguish the variety, a precursor to segregation, is genetic testing. Not only does that cost money, but the tests may not be accurate.

Don Durandetta, marketing manager for Strategic Diagnostics Inc., told Farm Journal in September 2000: "There are no true standards for the tests being used or for the tolerances of GM material allowed (to) still qualify as non-GM…Labs in the U.S. have tested grain and found it clean. Then the grain arrives in Europe and tests positive for GM. It could have been contaminated, or it could also be (a difference) in the tests."

Colorado wheat grower David Dechant says that if and when the day comes that transgenic wheat is being grown and harvested, he "should not have to do anything any different when it comes time to harvest and deliver my wheat than I have ever done. The industry must bear all the responsibility for it, not I the grower of conventional varieties."

It won’t be that way, says Rosher. The farmer will have to guarantee that the wheat is free of transgenic characteristics. Once a test at the elevator confirms this, she says, it would then become the responsibility of the elevator to keep it from mixing with transgenic varieties. Translation: growers of conventional or organic varieties must spend time and money keeping their seeds and crops pure.

Rosher emphasizes, as does Monsanto, that "We will not be able to guarantee 0 percent gmo contamination if gmo wheat is in general production in western Canada."

North Dakota wheat grower Todd Leake, one of the people who spearheaded an effort to place a two-year moratorium on Roundup Ready wheat but which Monsanto pressured state lawmakers to turn into a study, doesn’t believe that segregation is possible.

"There is no segregation system that can be designed," says Leake, referring to the old elevators that dot the western Canadian landscape. "This whole closed-loop system Monsanto talks about is pure rhetoric. Cross-pollination is a real issue. We can’t let it come out in the first place, because it will spread."

Others have questioned the economic sense and fairness of trying to segregate Roundup Ready wheat.

That’s because the transgenic variety would be of lower value, says University of Manitoba weed scientist Rene Van Acker. He and farmer Bill Toews have argued that all of the farmers who don’t grow Roundup Ready wheat would be bearing the cost of a system that benefits the few growers who do. The better option would be one closed loop for higher value niche crops.

"What is the rush for Canada to register this product before the market is ready?" asks Van Acker. "Why not wait until the market is ready and then not have to build a segregation system?"

To get a handle on the impacts of Roundup Ready wheat on Canadian farmers, University of Saskatchewan agricultural economist Hartley Furtan examined the issues of on-farm effects, market impacts and segregation.

His basic assumption was that the only Roundup Ready crop being grown was wheat. He found that the on-farm benefits outweighed the downsides, but not by a lot -- C$5 to C$8 per acre, including the tech fees. But when factoring in the loss of the premium European and Japanese markets, farmers would have to sell their wheat elsewhere at a lower price, which could cost them C$10 per ton. Throw in the cost of special equipment and procedures to test and segregate crops and they’d lose even more.

Overall, Furtan says, Roundup Ready wheat doesn’t work for Canadian farmers. Bill Wilson, an agricultural economist at North Dakota State University, is working on a similar study of market impacts on U.S. wheat growers, but it has not yet been published.

Resistant Weeds and Wheat Volunteers

Beyond the concerns about market impacts of Roundup Ready are the issues of weeds developing resistance to Roundup and volunteer wheat spreading out of control; this is beginning to happen with herbicide-resistant canola.

Horseweed is already showing signs of resistance to Roundup, says weed scientist ReneVan Acker. ( See CropChoice story – "Does Roundup-resistant marestail illustrate problems with reliance on GM crops and pesticides? http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=248)

Roundup has been a critical part of the tillage reduction in dry areas, he says, allowing farmers to conserve soil moisture and increase carbon. For this reason, he hates to lose it as an affordable weed control option.

Reining in unwanted Roundup Ready wheat is also a concern. Currently, farmers apply Roundup to control volunteer wheat and other grasses before planting. If they grew Roundup Ready varieties, they would have to spray a more expensive Group One herbicide (used to kill grasses), such as Assure by Dupont, he says. But applying Assure would drive up their costs, to about C$12 to C$16 per acre compared to C$4 to C$5 per acre for Roundup. Of course, they could adjust by cutting in half the amount of Assure they spray. However, the growers would still use Roundup to control the broad leaf weeds. In the end, their pre-seeding herbicide application costs would go from C$5 per acre to between C$10 and C$12 per acre.

Van Acker’s colleague at the University of Manitoba, cropping specialist Martin Entz, fears that Roundup Ready wheat could turn into a nuisance. Although wheat is mostly self-pollinating, "it will cross-pollinate quite readily," Entz says. Triticale and jointed goat grass are examples. (See CropChoice story – "Scientist points out possibility of Roundup Ready wheat crossing with goatgrass weed" http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=231)

Entz has been involved with the work on containing the transformation of Roundup Ready canola from a crop into a nuisance weed. He expects it to become more of a problem in the future because it has a long life in the soil.

During the registration process for the transgenic canola, Monsanto never acknowledged the tendency for the plant to spread or issued precautions that farmers should take, he says. To him this symbolizes the loss of control for farmers when it comes to genetic engineering. He doesn’t want to see wheat go the same way.

"I think that Roundup Ready wheat is just wrong," he says. "It will not serve farmers, consumers or the environment. It’ll serve a few of the entities in between, mainly the transnational life sciences companies."

Fred Kirschenmann organically grows 7 to 9 different crops a season on his 3,500-acre farm in North Dakota. He tried to put the controversy over Roundup Ready wheat into a grower’s perspective during a recent interview with CropChoice about sustainable agriculture. Kirschenmann sells his organic wheat into the Swiss market, which has zero tolerance for transgenic contamination, for about $6.50 per bushel. If his crop were to test positive for those traits, he’d have to sell it at the discounted price of about $2 to $3 a bushel.

Kirschenmann runs the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. To learn more, go to http://www.ag.iastate.edu/centers/leopold/