Monsanto’s approach to commercializing genetically modified (GM) wheat in Canada will be guided by Canada’s wheat industry, says Monsanto Canada spokesperson Trish Jordan.
That is if Monsanto decides to develop GM wheat for the Canadian market.
“Right now… we simply don’t know,” Jordan told a luncheon in Winnipeg Oct. 28 hosted by the Manitoba Farm Writers and Broadcasters’ Association. “We’re not saying that because we’re being evasive. We simply don’t know. We’re just starting to look at the Canadian business.”
Monsanto shelved GM wheat in 2004 after meeting strong resistance from farmers who feared it could disrupt trade; the majority of Canada’s wheat customers said at that time they didn’t want it.
In July, Monsanto purchased Montana-based wheat-breeding company, WestBred, for US$45 million and announced it was developing GM wheat for the U. S., with commercialization 10 to 12 years away.
“I’m sure the U. S. will go (with GM wheat) no matter what,” Jordan said, adding that the U. S. won’t wait for approval in Canada or Australia.
That’s because the U. S. wheat industry, including the U. S. Wheat Associates and National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), has asked Monsanto to develop GM wheat, Jordan said.
The U. S. wheat industry believes it can give customers what they want – GM or GM-free wheat, she said. But that’s conditional on customers accepting a small amount of GM wheat could show up in shipments that are supposed to be GM free. “In a zero-tolerance world it’s never going to work,” Jordan said.
However, a joint statement issued in May by American, Australian and Canadian farm groups that support GM wheat, including the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association and Grain Growers of Canada calls for the “synchronized commercialization” of GM wheat.
“While none of us hold a veto over the actions of others, we believe it is in all of our best interests to introduce biotech wheat varieties in a co-ordinated fashion to minimize market disruptions and shorten the period of adjustment,” the groups said.
In 2008, NAWG said before GM wheat is commercialized it wants to consult with the developer. NAWG also wants regulatory approval for food and feed use in all major wheat-exporting countries.
Whether Canadian farmers are prepared to sit on the sidelines if their American cousins get GM wheat depends on which farmers you talk to, Jordan said. Members of the Grain Growers of Canada say it’s unacceptable. The National Farmers Union (NFU) says it’s the introduction of GM wheat that’s unacceptable.
During her formal address Jordan did not mention the need for customer acceptance for GM wheat. Asked about it she said: “Approval is a given, absolutely. We will commit to getting the required regulatory approvals in countries that have functioning regulatory systems. I would argue Europe is moving but it’s still not functioning.”
The recent discovery of trace amounts of GM flax in Canadian flax exports to European Union (EU) underscores how sensitive some markets are to GM crops they haven’t approved.
In an interview Jordan said she couldn’t commit Monsanto to holding back GM wheat until it’s approved by all major wheat-importing countries because one country could veto the crop’s release. However, she stressed Monsanto is committed to not undermining Canadian wheat exports.
Jordan noted that Canada, with the Canola Council of Canada’s blessing, commercialized GM canola in the mid-1990s even though the EU had not approved it. The canola industry agreed it was more important to give farmers access to the new technology.
“And in hindsight it turned out to be the right decision, I would argue,” Jordan said. “And I think a lot of growers would too.”
Canada lost the EU as a canola market for more than a decade, but the impact was mitigated by exporters finding other markets, she said. During the five years up until access was denied Canada exported an average of 445,250 tonnes of canola to the EU, representing 18 per cent of Canada’s total canola exports.
If Monsanto decides to develop GM wheat for Canadian farmers, it will create a Wheat Development Advisory Council, including representatives from throughout Canada’s wheat industry, including academics and community-based groups.
Monsanto is prepared to listen to “activist groups,” but only if the possibility exists for “constructive dialogue,” Jordan said. That doesn’t include the Canadian Biotech Action Network or the NFU because of their intransigence, she said.
“But there are a lot of other players that have legitimate concerns they want to have addressed,” she said. [email protected]