With seeding around the corner, distribution of Monsanto’s new Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans to Canadian farmers is on hold, awaiting European Union (EU) approval.
The glyphosate- and dicamba-tolerant soybeans were expected to be approved weeks ago.
The Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers Association (MPSGA) and major grain companies don’t want Monsanto to release the seed until the EU approves it. They fear it will jeopardize Canadian soybean exports worth $455 million last year alone.
So far that’s what Monsanto has done, but if EU approval, which the company is convinced is imminent, doesn’t come by April 15 Monsanto will “reassess its next steps,” said Trish Jordan, Monsanto Canada’s public and industry affairs director in an interview April 5.
While Jordan didn’t say Xtend soybean seed will be released in time for spring seeding even if the EU hasn’t approved it, she didn’t rule it out either.
“We’ve had extensive conversations with the industry and a number of players and it could be possible,” she said, adding Monsanto is aware of grain company concerns. “In the big scheme of things we don’t view this as an issue whatsoever because even if we don’t have the approval by spring, there is absolutely zero reason why we shouldn’t have it by harvest.
“Approval is essentially granted, but we don’t have the signed documentation.”
UPDATE, April 8: An April 7 letter from the European Union’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety to Soy Canada confirms that. It says the European Food Safety Authority approved Xtend soybeans last June.
“Following these votes, and in accordance with the applicable EU legislations, it is now for the Commission to decide on the authorization of the two soybeans,” EU official Sabine Jülicher says in the letter. “I would like to inform you that the draft authorizing decisions are now at the final stage of the procedure.”
Seed processors are getting “antsy” knowing there are logistical hurdles and a practical deadline to getting seed to farmers in time to plant, Jordan said.
Farmers started booking Xtend seed last November. In February Monsanto announced “its intent to commercialize… Xtend soybeans in Canada in time for the 2016 growing season, after the company received import approval from China’s Ministry of Agriculture.”
If Xtend soybeans, which were approved by Canadian regulators in 2013, are shelved for 2016 there is enough EU-approved glyphosate-tolerant soybean seed to meet Canadian farmers’ needs, Jordan said.
If farmers plant Xtend soybeans and EU approval hasn’t come by harvest they could be hard to sell. The major grain companies won’t buy them without EU approval, Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association (WGEA), said in an interview. The WGEA represents the West’s six main grain companies, including the big three — Richardson International, Viterra and Cargill.
“We need to make sure that we have EU approval in place before we allow the product to be commingled in the grain handling system,” Sobkowich said.
“Until EU approvals are received we won’t be in a position to sell or handle the seed.”
Even a small amount of the unapproved variety commingled into a shipment to the EU prior to approval could be a big problem, Sobkowich said. It is especially dangerous because the EU soybean market is a large one.
“We don’t want to jeopardize that market,” Sobkowich said. “There is an order of operations here that needs to be respected.”
Commercializing new GM crops before they have been approved by importers has resulted in lawsuits against developers. American corn farmers have launched class action lawsuits against Syngenta for $2.9 billion. Farmers allege they lost money when Syngenta released a GM corn not approved in China, prompting China to block U.S. corn imports for a year, starting in December 2013.
While the MPSGA welcomes Monsanto’s Xtend soybeans, because it gives farmers more weed control options, the association doesn’t want them commercialized before EU approval.
“We don’t want an unapproved event produced because of the potential to harm the EU market,” MPSGA executive director Francois Labelle said in an interview.
“There’s huge potential risk to growers because if unapproved soybeans get mixed into a shipment to the EU grain companies could trace it back and hold the farmer liable. They could lose their farm over it. We want farmers to be aware of the risks.”
Soy Canada, which represents Canadian soybean growers, processors, exporters and developers, including Monsanto, was more circumspect.
“My answer is yes, we need to respect their (EU) policies, but we really do need Europe to address this application in a timely fashion,” said Jim Everson, the group’s executive director, in an interview.
“We’re not asking them to change their process, we’re asking them to get it through the system in an expeditious way so it doesn’t hold up commerce and innovation in Canada and trade ultimately.”
Everson, Labelle and Sobkowich, praised Monsanto for how it’s handling the issue.
“Good on them for taking the action they have so far,” Everson said. “They’ve agreed not to release seed and we will evaluate it later on. We support the position that they don’t release the seed until they have approval in the EU.”
Meanwhile, Soy Canada continues to urge the EU to finalize the approval. The EU’s European Food Safety Authority, which conducted a science-based assessment of Xtend soybeans gave them “a thumbs up” last June, Everson said.
“It’s not very transparent so we don’t know what the issue is, but there doesn’t appear to be any legislative regulatory road blocks to proceeding so it’s just a question of, as I see it, administratively getting the job done. It’s an important matter for our farmers. I think it’s up to the EU to deal with this.”
Monsanto has been working more than a decade to bring Xtend soybeans to market.
“It’s a good tool to address weed management challenges,” Jordan said
Xtend growers will be able to control more weeds with one spray application, including some glyphosate resistant weeds, get 14-days of residual weed control and delay the development of herbicide tolerant weeds.