Consumers still unsure about GM wheat

(Resource News International) — It has been five years since U.S. seed and chemical company Monsanto dropped its plans to introduce genetically modified (GM) wheat in the face of consumer opposition — and while some attitudes have shifted since then, by and large many people still aren’t certain they want GM wheat included in their bread.

Consumers are willing to accept many types of new technology without reserve but when it comes to GM food, feelings run very high, said Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Laurent Pellerin.

The CFA itself neither promotes nor opposes GM wheat, but as long as there is no market for it, as is currently the case, it is “going to be wary of the introduction of GM seeds,” Pellerin said.

Farmers cannot afford to invest in crops they are not able to market, he continued.

Dustin Gosnell, director of strategic planning and corporate policy for the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB), similarly said the board is neutral toward the prospect of GM wheat.

“We don’t oppose the introduction of GM wheat but it has to be done in a manner that won’t be disruptive of trade flows,” Gosnell said.

CWB support for the commercial introduction of GM wheat would be conditional upon wide-spread market acceptance, achievable tolerance acceptance levels and an ability to segregate GM wheat from non-GM wheat also to a level that is acceptable to its buyers, Gosnell explained.

The board continually tries to gage attitudes towards GM wheat among its buyers and while reservations have likely eased some over the past few years, there is “still certainly strong concern,” Gosnell said.

When asked whether the board sees the eventual introduction of GM wheat in Canada as inevitable, Gosnell replied, “It’s hard to say. I would expect that likely over time there will be enough acceptance but that is really difficult to know.”

As for the Western Canadian Wheat Growers’ Association (WCWGA), they are open to technologies which improves wheat’s competitiveness versus other crops but they are not particularly wedded to any one type of technology.

Western Canada has lost 10 million acres of wheat over the last 20 years even as summerfallow acreage declined. The land has shifted into GM canola and special acreage, WCWGA executive director Blair Rutter said.

At the same time, Canada faces increased competition internationally from low-cost wheat producers such as Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, he said.

“Proper systems”

“We have to look at ways we can either increase our yields or increase the premium that we get for our wheat. So we’re certainly open to (GM technology) but it’s probably about six to eight years before we see anything introduced on a commercial basis,” Rutter said.

While the WCWGA feels there is growing consumer acceptance for GM wheat, concerns about the loss of marketing opportunities are certainly legitimate, he said.

“Obviously if you’re going to introduce this technology you have to make sure that consumers are comfortable with it… that is a big piece of the puzzle. But we’ve got six to eight years likely to make sure we have the proper systems in place,” Rutter said.

Looking ahead, caution and thorough consultations will need to guide the commercial introduction of GM wheat in Canada to ensure that all parties along the supply chain, from producer to consumer, benefit from GM wheat, the different groups agreed.

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