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May 17, 1999
Reprint of an article:
PUBLICATION The Saskatoon StarPhoenix
DATE Wednesday May 12, 1999
BYLINE Paulson, Joanne
HEADLINE: NFU fights 'genetic pollution'; National farm group wants Ottawa
to make ag-biotech firms liable
The National Farmers Union (NFU) wants the federal government to make
agricultural biotechnology companies financially responsible for what it
calls the "genetic pollution" of organic and traditional crops.
Stewart Wells, the NFU's Saskatchewan co-ordinator and an organic farmer
near Swift Current, said he could lose his organic certification for canola
because it will be impossible to guarantee it does not contain genetically
"If this continues, once wheat, barley, lentils and other crops are
genetically engineered, I won't have anything left to grow," said Wells.
At the NFU's conference last December, the group decided to lobby
government to make companies liable for "genetic pollution that has
infringed on the livelihoods of farmers or the general public."
"Provincial and federal taxpayers' money is being used to help these
companies do their research . . . but the profits are always privatized,"
Agriculture seed and input companies are transferring genes from some
plants into others to create new varieties that are drought, herbicide or
pesticide resistant. They are frequently referred to as genetically
modified organisms (GMOs).
Ag-biotech issues have been heating up in recent months. In Saskatchewan, a
court battle is proceeding between Monsanto and Bruno-area farmer Percy
Schmeiser over Roundup Ready canola, which does not die when sprayed with
Roundup herbicide. Schmeiser maintains the Monsanto canola found in his
field was volunteer, but Monsanto alleges he did not pay the required fee
when he planted the crop.
A growing number of North American farmers are pursuing court action
against ag-biotech companies, claiming new crop varieties or agricultural
inputs are causing weed and insect resistance and are failing in the field.
Ag-biotech is a "gigantic experiment" foisted on farmers and the public,
based on the fallacy that there is nothing to worry about because farmers
make their own planting decisions, said Wells.
"It's not my choice . . . because they can't control this once it's
released into the wild."
Bill Anderson, a scientist and manager of regulatory affairs for the
Saskatchewan Agbiotech Regulatory Affairs Service, said cross- pollination
between GMOs and traditional varieties is possible, but non-GMO crops can
also transfer their genes.
Herbicide tolerance is the most manageable modification and the most
benign, he added. For non-organic farmers, "it's just something you would
take care of with another herbicide."
Anderson agreed there is a problem for organic farmers at present, but said
a threshold level for GMO content should be established for organic crops
to help farmers maintain their certification, he said.
Ann Clark, an agronomist with the University of Guelph in Ontario, said
canola crops must be at least eight kilometres apart to prevent
cross-pollination. Corn and potato crops, by comparison, need only be one
"This is a huge problem, and it's not simply a problem for organic
farmers," she said.
Selling agricultural commodities into the European Union is already
becoming more difficult, as the EU develops more sensitive testing to keep
out most genetically modified crops.
"Exports are being vastly hurt right now," she said.
Clark said Canadian federal and provincial governments are spending $ 700
million annually to further ag-biotech research, but none is going to risk
assessment as far as she can determine. People are often told genetically
altered crops are safe because of the government's stringent regulations, but
the government is not an independent third party, she said.
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