Frankencrops Pollution Causing Major Crisis in Canada

Frankencrops Pollution Causing
Major Crisis in Canada

The Gazette (Montreal)
August 24, 2001 Trouble down on the farm: Airborne spread of GM seeds could
threaten markets for Canadian crops


It's harvest season in farm country, a time of hard work, sweat and grit -
usually followed by some equally hard drinking and dancing once the crop
has gone off to market and the bills are paid. At least that's the way I
remember it growing up on a farm southwest of Edmonton in the shadow
of the Rocky Mountains, where I learned to drive a tractor years before I
sat behind the wheel of a car.

This season is different, however, and not because of the drought that has
stunted crops across the country. The weather and the banks are eternal
worries. But now many farmers are wondering just what they have growing
in their fields. Contamination of crops by escaped varieties of genetically
modified organisms is now so pervasive that farm groups across North
America live in real fear of losing overseas markets that have wisely banned
GM foods. Either that or facing the wrath of Monsanto's legal legions. The
biotech giant is suing hundreds of farmers across the continent for
intellectual copyright violation - many say simply because GM seeds have
invaded their land. "It is a concern and we certainly hear it from farmers,"
John Culley, program director for Western Canada at Agriculture Canada,
told me yesterday. His division recently completed a study finding rogue GM
rapeseed appearing in fields far from where it was originally planted. "You
never know how that one plant got there. And these are plants that always
look exactly alike. You can't look at them and tell them apart, you have to
treat them."

"I don't know how they calculate these things, but escaped rapeseed (or
canola) is now Canada's 18th worst weed," according to Culley. "With 12
to 15 million acres of canola grown every year, it becomes a problem for
the following year," he points out.

But over the phone, at least, Culley sounds caught between two warring
factions. On the one hand are farmers worried about genetic pollution, on
the other the powerful biotech industry, which obviously has his bosses
further up the food chain in its corner.

"We're really not sure why we have the problem we do," Culley avers. "It
could be many different things. It could be an issue with seed quality. We
don't know exactly why we get these low levels of contamination. It may be
completely unrelated to isolation issues."

No matter how it happens, many virulent strains of GM crops that have easily
vaulted fences, crossed roads and sometimes traveled several kilometres are
ruining markets for organic farmers - the one agriculture sector that until
now has promised a better living for small independent farm families. And,
Culley admits, "the trouble is that loss of market has not up until now been
a consideration in government regulation."

Yesterday, the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee released an interim
report on regulating GM foods. The report did recommend a centralized
information system to assist consumers who want to know just what it is they
are eating. But for farmers looking for guidance or relief, there wasn't
much other than vague platitudes.

It might already be too late for Robert Stevenson, a farmer from Kenton,
Man. He has found wind-blown GM rapeseed growing in his prime seed grass,
making it difficult to market. Stevenson told the Sunday Times of London
last week that when his crop was tested by spraying with glycophosphate, the
grass died, but the rapeseed was unaffected.

"I don't want it on my farm," Stevenson told the Times. "It's a serious
contaminant. I'm at a loss over what to do."

There were 59 test crops of Monsanto's Roundup Ready wheat across Canada
this year, despite the virtually unanimous opposition from groups such as
The National Farmers Union, Manitoba's Keystone Agricultural Producers,
the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan
Association of Rural Municipalities, the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate
and the Canadian Wheat Board. The implications for our agriculture are
obvious. But what did the CBAC have say to about it? "Leadership should
be shown in studying crops for which Canada is a global leader."

If that produced a yawn, or jaw-dropping incomprehension, that shouldn't
be surprising: the CBAC is widely seen as stacked in favour of the biotech
industry, and critics lambasted yesterday's interim report as next to useless.
The horse has long fled the barn, but the government's designated
committee is still debating whether the barn has a door.

- Lyle Stewart is a Montreal writer. His E-mail is

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