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Doing anything and everything to gain acceptance of biotech wheat

By Paul Beingessner

(Wednesday, April 16, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- The issues around the acceptance of genetically modified (GM) wheat varieties, specifically Roundup Ready wheat, grow hotter with each passing week. And farmers in Canada should note that there are striking similarities between Canada and the U.S. in the way this issue is playing out.

Monsanto is attempting to register its Roundup Ready wheat in both countries at the same time. Opposition in both countries is coming from users and marketers. In Canada, the CWB and the Ontario Wheat Board have joined with millers, bakers and many farm groups to urge the government to refuse registration to Roundup Ready wheat. In the U.S., farmers have been vocal in opposition. Also, a recent survey of grain elevator operators in North Dakota, the largest hard spring wheat producing state, found 98 percent of respondents to be concerned about its introduction.

In Canada, groups opposed to the introduction of GM wheat are asking the federal government to make market acceptability part of the licensing requirements before the uncontrolled release of GM wheat. In the U.S. this February, wheat growers asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prior to approving Monsanto’s GE wheat petition. Such an examination would include an analysis of the socio-economic impacts of GE wheat introduction. The USDA, like Agriculture Canada, has been reluctant to use this assessment criterion on GM crops.

Perhaps the most striking similarity between Canada and the U.S. on this issue comes in who is supporting the introduction of Roundup Ready wheat and what tactics they are taking. Support in Canada is coming from the Grain Growers of Canada, a lobby group which includes canola growers, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers, the Western Barley Growers Association and Ontario corn producers, among others. These groups oppose examining the market impact of GM wheat in the registration process. They claim that assurances by Monsanto that it will not do anything to harm farmers are enough.

In the U.S., the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and the U.S. Wheat Associates are the two main groups, other than seed companies, that are arguing against regulated restrictions on the introduction of GM wheat. NAWG is comprised of various state wheat grower associations. U.S. Wheat Associates is charged with expanding the markets for U.S. wheat abroad. It is funded 54 percent by the American government, 31 percent by a farmer check-off, and other organizations, largely agribusiness corporations provide the remaining 15 percent.

In the past U.S. Wheat Associates had frequently mentioned that foreign customers for American wheat did not want GM wheat. Now, a biotechnology committee formed between NAWG and U.S. Wheat Associates has ordered U.S. Wheat not to publish such survey results without the committee's approval.

NAWG receives some of its funding from the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dow AgroSciences. Similarily, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers and the Western Barley Growers Association in Canada find themselves on the receiving end of the largesse of Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow and Cargill. Various canola organizations in Canada also find themselves courted by agribusiness, and farmer reps to these groups are given perks including overseas trips by Monsanto.

Not surprisingly, in both countries, groups that support GM crops receive money from the companies that will profit from the release of these crops.

Though for many the issue of the release of GM wheat is a grim one, there is the odd moment of humor. An internet website from the U.K. conducted a web survey of attitudes to GM crops in March. It found overwhelming opposition to GM crops in the first few days of the survey. Then the tide began to swing and many survey participants registered their support for GM crops. When the website examined where these pro-GM responses were coming from, it turned out that 72 percent of them originated from Monsanto or Cargill IP addresses. Employees of these two companies were doing their best to alter the poll results.

About the author: Paul Beingessner, his wife and his 9-year-old son run a cattle, sheep and small grains operation near Truax, in south central Saskatchewan. He also does consulting work related to agriculture, communications, and transportation. (He spent about 5 years as the general manager of Saskatchewan's first short line railway.)

You can reach him at beingessner@sasktel.net