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Even provincial government kept in dark on Canadian GM wheat site

(July 27, 2001 -- CropChoice news) -- This is a Canadian Broadcasting Company transcript of a story about a secret transgenic wheat trial site that was kept secret from the Prince Edward Island provincial government

ALISON SMITH: A crop of wheat in Prince Edward Island is raising some serious questions, like when does a company's right to protect its interests end and the public's right to protect itself begin? As Kelly Crowe reports, they're questions that started when the provincial government asked a simple question of its own.

KELLY CROWE (Reporter): It was an experiment in genetically modified wheat somewhere on Prince Edward Island last summer. A location so secret, even provincial Agriculture Minister Mitch Murphy was kept in the dark. MITCH

MURPHY (PEI Agriculture Minister): Absolutely think the province has a right to know.

CROWE: But the province didn't know, even though it tried to find out. A fact revealed in a series of government documents published in an Island newspaper. It started with this letter last March. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency told PEI that a company, Novartis, wanted to test some GM wheat. We ask you to notify us as soon as possible with any questions. The Minister sent back a list of questions. The food inspection agency asked Novartis to answer them. In response to the question, what are the exact locations of the field trial sites, Novartis wrote that was strictly confidential because the company, worried about vandalism, wanted to ensure the safety of Novartis operators and personnel as well as protect Novartis' intellectual property from industrial espionage.

MURPHY: We didn't answers to what we thought were very important questions.

CROWE: It's information island farmers like David Mall wanted to know. Now he's wondering if one of the test sites was anywhere near his fields.

DAVID MALL (PEI Farmer): I'd have some concerns about cross- pollination or that the proper procedures or safety protocol was followed.

CROWE: It's a concern that's been expressed across Canada, with more than fifty field tests of GM wheat approved for this year alone. The Canadian Wheat Board has tried and failed to find out the locations. So have individual farmers. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says its hands are tied by privacy laws. Spokesman Stephen Yarrow wasn't available for an on camera interview. He says he's sympathetic to the reasons why people want to know, but the law is the law. He said, "we're on the side of the protection of proprietary information. That's how it looks because that's how it is".

WALTER WALCHUK (Alberta Organic Growers): Well, I'm not sure whose interests they're defending here.

CROWE: Walter Walchuk, of the Alberta Organic Growers, has also tried and failed to find out where the test fields are. He says it's time for a change in government policy.

WALCHUK: So I think it's a matter of public interest versus private corporate interest, and I think the public interest is the one that needs to be protected here.

CROWE: Back in PEI, Mitch Murphy says more openness will help the companies too.

MURPHY: If the trials are conducted in an open and transparent way, then the public will support the results.

CROWE: There was something else that PEI wanted to know, what would Ottawa do if something went wrong with the tests. Who would be liable? The Agriculture Minister says he didn't get an answer to that question either.

Kelly Crowe, CBC News, Toronto.