Controlling The Uncontrollable – for Aug. 12, 2010

This may sound like I’m wandering off in 20 different directions, but bear with me; it will come together. One of my friends had a prize herd of purebred cows. When the day came to take the bull out to the pasture to service his eager cattle, he found that a scruffy crossbred bull from a neighbour’s herd had beat him to the punch. Needless to say, my friend was very unhappy.

We all knew her. She was “that” girl in school. She had a terrible reputation and she may even have done something to earn it, but for the most part she hadn’t. Her reputation proceeded her because it takes time to find out the truth and nobody bothered. It takes effort to research facts. Innuendo and half-truths however can run amock forever.

One day in mid-July I was driving down the highway and thought I could see smoke billowing over the road. On closer inspection, I discovered it wasn’t smoke at all, but pollen blowing across from a nearby hemp field. I neither know or care if there was any serious marijuana growers downwind, but if there was, they had a big problem because genetics from low THC hemp is not what a grow-op operator wants in his crop.

Today we have large corporations that want to bring genetically modified wheat to Canada. I’m not opposed to development, or even genetically modified organisms, but what does concern me is the potential threat of their indifference. Wheat is a mainstay, not only of our agricultural economic exports, but of our export reputation in the world market.

A case in point is the recent fiasco with Triffid flax. We were all told that it would do no good to point fingers after the fact or try to place blame, but the fact is that producers paid for the incident.

Every flax grower lost money on the Triffid-infested flax they were trying to sell, and every producer in Canada who exports a commodity lost a little bit of credibility in the marketplace. We can do everything in our power to get the modified organisms out of the flax crop, and we can reassure our customers that it will never happen again. But the problem is that none of us have forgotten that girl in Grade 10. Regaining our reputation and that positive public perception will take a lot longer than it did to lose it.

When Roundup Ready canola came to market, I was among the first to try it. And I’m still growing it. It is one of my most profitable crops, but that comes with a price. As a volunteer, it is also one of my worst weeds. Even in a four-year rotation, I have problems with it coming back in my buckwheat crop. Buckwheat growers jokingly call it buckola, but when you have a crop infested with a weed for which there is no registered control products, it is no joke. Broadleaf plants are relatively easy to control, and we can’t control them. Imagine a volunteer wheat or barley that has GMO traits and is also resistant to Group 1 and 2 products as well.

In my case, you could say I’ve asked for the problem by sowing the crop. But what about people who never bought the seed? I know of a zero-till research site that became infested with Roundup-resistant canola on a farm where it was fully documented that the farmer had never grown the crop. Unlike the hemp field distributing its genetics downwind, it was unlikely that this field had been contaminated naturally due to the distance and tree cover between it and adjacent farms.

The contaminated genetics were most likely introduced via pedigreed seed that was supposedly non-GMO. Geographically, the easiest location to cross-contaminate is right at the development stages, where plots are much closer together than fields.

It doesn’t appear that anyone other than the producers will be held financially liable for what happened with Triffid flax. If there isn’t going to be any recourse after the fact, we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again… especially in the wheat market.

We would never let researchers openly play with human diseases without making sure it couldn’t threaten the general population, so why would we let them threaten our food supply? They may not create the Frankenstein plants of “Day of the Triffid” folklore, but if they destroy the value of our crops and our reputation as a prime exporter, it really won’t matter.

Anyone introducing genetically modified organisms should have to certify that they can contain them. “Accidentally” allowing them into the seed stocks where we can’t control them is akin to food terrorism, and needs to be dealt with accordingly.

There needs to be a legislated protocol in place that allows for research without threatening our existing markets. Until the day comes that these products are registered for sale, and our markets are willing to purchase them, they are nothing more than a source of contamination. Farmers can be held liable for contaminating food stocks and so should researchers.

When we buy pedigreed seed, we expect the bag to contain the product we purchased. When we grow a crop, we are expected to apply the agronomic practices to keep it safe and clean. That being said, we can’t stop pollen from moving in the wind and we can’t stop nature from doing what comes naturally. But if that is your scruffy old bull out in the neighbour’s pasture… fix your damn fence.

Les McEwan farms near Altamont.

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Regainingour reputationand thatpositivepublic perceptionwilltake alotlongerthan itdidtoloseit.

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