Release of new variety of GM wheat irreversible
(The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon))
PUBLICATION: The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon)
BYLINE: Paul Hanley
SOURCE: The StarPhoenix
agencies had better be certain of the consequences of their actions
before licensing Roundup Ready wheat (RRW), given that its introduction
would be irreversible. Once released into the environment, it will
not be possible to withdraw RRW, even if it proves as damaging
to the economy and the environment as many economists and scientists
"Once a genetically modified wheat variety is licensed and grown by some
farmers," say a group of Saskatchewan ag economists in a paper entitled
The Optimal Time to License a Biotech 'Lemon,' "it will be nearly impossible
to reclaim all of the novel genes from the environment. Small quantities of the
variety will eventually diffuse throughout the grain production and marketing
system. The diffusion process makes the decision to license GM (genetically modified)
wheat irreversible. Thus, the external costs will persist even if GM wheat is
no longer commercially produced."
I don't know about you, but I don't like the sound of that. While there
doesn't seem to be any proof that RRW is harmful to human health,
many consumers see no point
in taking the risk since there are no benefits to them, such as better
nutrition. It is certain that modified genetic material will spread
to non-GM plants, resulting in the contamination of the entire Canadian
wheat supply. Even though this contamination could be small, most of
Canada's grain customers have indicated that they will reject grain
with as little as one per cent genetic contamination, given that their
customers do not want to eat GM foods.
This should rule out the licensing of RRW, since environmental assessments
of new technologies are typically done on the basis of a cost-benefit
analysis. All the costs of using the technology (mostly environmental
or health-related) are assessed and weighed against the benefits
(usually economic). In the case of RRW, no economic benefits have
been identified, other than to Monsanto, the corporation that has
developed the technology. Farmers will lose millions in lost markets
and increased costs to control herbicide resistant volunteer grain.
The environmental/agronomic risks associated with RRW are significant.
The first risk is that genetic contamination will spread through mechanisms
such as pollen flow and physical handling. The second is the development
of weed, insect or disease resistance to the chemicals used with RRW.
The third is the cost and management of volunteers, i.e. the GM plants
that can no longer be controlled by the Roundup 60 04/01/03 herbicide
which persist in subsequent years. Economists have shown that these
risks will be detrimental to
farmers, whose weed control costs will increase even if they do not
use RRW themselves.
RRW is also being proposed for the U.S. market, but one American economist
believes that the price of spring wheat could drop by about one-third
if a GM variety is introduced commercially. Dr. Robert Wisner says "every
available indicator of foreign consumer demand points to a high
risk of GM wheat rejection in export markets. In the past four
years the US has lost over a billion dollars of corn and soybean
meal exports because of foreign GM concerns." The risk of
loss is higher with wheat since more of it is exported. Montana
legislators are proposing the Montana Wheat Protection and Promotion
Act, which would require Monsanto and other companies to show that
GM wheat can be marketed overseas, and that GM wheat and conventional
wheat can be segregated, before they can sell GM wheat in Montana.
The North Dakota legislature is considering a similar bill. Saskatchewan
should do the same.
RRW is consistent with an economic model that stresses productivity
goals over quality, sustainability and health goals. But achieving
high levels of production only depresses commodity prices and often
undermines quality and sustainability. In farming today, it may
be that prosperity is increasingly linked to health and ecological
consideration. The winners in this boondoggle may be those nations
that do not license GM wheat. Canada's rejection of RRW will ensure
that it maintains its reputation for pure, high-quality milling
grain, and retains access to premium markets.