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Approval process for genetically modified wheat needs to remain beyond questions of integrity

(Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Toronto Star editorial, 12/04/03: The last thing beleaguered Canadian farmers need is for a short-sighted federal agency to do anything that would undermine consumer confidence at home and abroad in the process that exists to ensure food safety.

Yet, that's exactly what Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada risks with a deal with Monsanto that would see it receive royalties from the biotechnology giant should a variety of transgenic wheat be approved for sale.

While it's been known for several years that Agriculture Canada researchers were working with the company to develop genetically modified wheat, news of a commercial relationship between Ottawa and Monsanto is highly troubling.

Quite apart from its responsibilities to develop and support the farming industry, Agriculture Canada is also charged with ensuring the safety of the food supply.

While it may argue that safety regulation properly belongs to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, an arm's-length branch of the department, there's little doubt that consumers are in no mood to engage in bureaucratic hair-splitting on this topic.

Even as Monsanto and federal researchers were testing the GM wheat at undisclosed locations across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta as part of their joint venture, the Canadian Wheat Board and advocacy groups such as the National Farmers Union raised legitimate concerns.

The wheat board wants a moratorium on registering GM wheat until Canada is sure its grain handling system has the capability to segregate transgenic grains for shipments to those few customers who might want them. Given that many of the 70 countries, particularly Japan, which now buy from the board refuse to accept grain with even minute traces of GM product, the stance is understandable.

As the experience with transgenic plants such as canola shows, such contamination is a concern. While cross-pollination in wheat may be greatly lower than for canola, the volume of wheat on the Prairies ensures that even a little bit can go a long way to devastation.

Based on the current registration system, which places no value on market acceptance of a grain variety, Monsanto's GM wheat could win government approval as early as next year.

While the company has promised that it won't rush GM wheat to market until international standards and market concerns are addressed, public perception about the independence of the evaluation process remains key.

Canadian beef farmers, reeling from the effects a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy that's devastated their industry, and consumers for whom the independence of government inspections regimes remains their primary safeguard, need to know that Agriculture Canada's integrity remains beyond question.

And that can't happen if the government department has a financial stake in approving for sale a variety of GM wheat in which it has invested money and helped to develop.

In addition to the problem of consumer resistance to transgenic wheat, preliminary studies by some researchers suggest that application of glyphosate-based herbicides such as Monsanto's Roundup significantly stimulates the growth of fusarium pathogens. The fusarium blight can render grain unsuitable for human or animal consumption by producing a ``vomitoxin.'' A Roundup-resistant wheat may have longer-term ramifications than the bottom lines at Agriculture Canada and Monsanto.

Agriculture Canada should never have put itself in a position where its duty to serve the public in a transparent way conflicts with a deal struck with a partner who has to protect commercial interests.