Ag groups push back against biotech wheat

A bid by a number of Canadian, U.S. and Australian growers’ groups to help clear the regulatory road for gene-altered wheats has run up against equally opposed groups from the same three countries.

“In light of our existing experience with genetic engineering, and recognizing the global consumer rejection of genetically engineered (GE) wheat, we restate our definitive opposition to GE wheat and our commitment to stopping the commercialization of GE traits in our wheat crops,” 15 farmer, consumer and “civil society” groups said in a joint release Monday.

Canadian groups putting their names to the statement include the National Farmers Union (NFU), Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, Union Paysanne, Union Biologique Paysanne, Reseau Quebecois contre les OGM and the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate.

Australian groups included the Network of Concerned Farmers, Organic Federation of Australia, Biological Farmers of Australia, Greenpeace and Gene Ethics. U.S. groups on the same statement included the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) , Western Organization of Resource Councils, Center for Food Safety and Organic Consumers Association.

“GE wheat is a potential disaster of huge proportions. People do not want GE in their bread,” NFU vice-president Terry Boehm, who farms at Allan, Sask., said in the groups’ release. “We refuse to allow industry groups to restart any campaign to commercialize GE wheat.”

“Monsanto and industry groups in our countries need to abandon their agenda of forcing GE wheat onto a market that doesn’t want or need it,” NFFC executive director Katherine Ozer said in the same release.

Similar pressure from various groups has so far kept any seed genetics firm from trying to register a GM wheat. Monsanto in 2004 announced it would shelve its work toward introduction of wheat varieties in Canada and the U.S. with its patented Roundup Ready genetics for glyphosate tolerance.

Farm groups and agencies such as the Canadian Wheat Board have previously contended that introduction of biotech wheat, without significant market acceptance or a functioning system to segregate it from conventional wheats, would jeopardize farmers’ export and domestic markets alike for the conventional crop.

“Synchronizing approvals”

Monday’s statement followed a May 14 release from growers’ groups that said they would work together to “ensure the commercial introduction of biotech traits in wheat will proceed smoothly by synchronizing regulatory approvals in exporting and importing nations.”

Applying biotechnology in wheat research “could lead to the development of several traits to improve wheat yields and wheat quality,” the pro-biotech growers’ groups said.

As it now would take six to eight years for new biotech wheat varieties to reach commercial introduction, the groups said, “it is critical to signal both seed developers and policymakers now, that many farmers are eager to see biotech traits in wheat that could improve their profitability and improve food security for many countries around the world.”

Traits to improve wheat plants’ yields could include those that deal with environmental factors (drought, cold), combat weed or insect infestations, improve disease resistance or improve a plant’s use of nutrients, the groups said.

Canadian groups on board to support wheat biotech approvals included the Grain Growers of Canada, Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association and Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission.

U.S. supporters included the National Association of Wheat Growers, U.S. Wheat Associates and North American Millers’ Association, while Australian groups involved included the Grains Council of Australia, Grain Growers Association and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia.

NFU president Stewart Wells retorted May 15 that the three Canadian groups backing the biotech effort “don’t speak for the majority of producers” and that international customers who now buy 82 per cent of Canada’s wheat crop have previously said they would stop buying if Canada were to introduce GM wheat.

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