Bitter harvest

Why the Canadian Wheat Board should reconsider its call to ban genetically engineered wheat

Should politicians make marketing decisions? Based on their track record, no.Yet that is exactly what the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) and the various socialengineers at Greenpeace et al. were asking of Ottawa when they held a press conference last summer calling for a ban on genetically modified wheat -- essentially the same proposal legislators in wheat-producing states like North Dakota contemplated before thinking better of it.

The story shakes out something like this.

Canada grows wheat -- some 17.5 million tons worth more than $3billion to Canada's export-dependent economy. Canada sells a lot of the wheat to Europe, and the Canadian Wheat Board wants to keep its customers, especially Europeans, happy. Manufacturer Monsanto makes agricultural herbicides and a genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant wheat designed to promote sustainable farming and, as some have charged, sell more herbicide.

The European Union, whose constituents are not favorably disposed toward genetically engineered foods, has proposed regulations that would require all products made from engineered material to bear a label saying they contain "genetically modified organisms." Further, producers would be required to document the source of all their ingredients. The regulations would presumably help relieve consumer tension -- and reduce trans-Atlantic trade -- but in reality would be absolutely unenforceable and increase the costs of foodstuffs in the EU that already carry ridiculously high prices.

CWB and its American counterparts are worried that Monsanto'sherbicide-tolerant wheat, named Roundup, will make Europeans wary of Canadian wheat. Never mind that the company has yet to file an application and insists that it won't do so unless farmers and consumers are on side. After all, why would farmers grow a product that consumers view unfavorably? Likewise, why would any processor include an ingredient that could well prompt consumer complaints, no matter how small?

Apparently Canada and the U.S. can grow food for export, but only under the conditions set by imperialistic overlords, regardless of the environmental damage sustained. For example, according to research commissioned by the Canola Council of Canada, more than 80 per cent of canola growers used genetically modified product last year, predominately Roundup Ready canola as part of a no- or minimal-till system in which seed is drilled directly into the soil to alleviate the need for plowing. No-till has helped reverse decades of soil erosion, but requires a relatively benign, broad spectrum weed-killer like Roundup (glyphosate). So Roundup Ready crops, according to the farmers who buy them, promote more sustainable farming.

Still, Roundup Ready wheat isn't something growers get excited about. But CWB will almost certainly be singing a different tune when genetically engineered, fusarium-resistant wheat becomes available.

Consumers don't get excited about Roundup Ready wheat either, but they do get excited about whole foods. Last year, one of my farmer colleagues grew some genetically engineered sweet corn and table potatoes. Neither the engineered sweet corn nor the potatoes required any insecticides to manage the key pests. After harvest, the two crops were sold fully labeled in his farm market in Hillsburgh, Ont., alongside their conventional counterparts.

The genetically engineered sweet corn outsold the conventional by a margin of 3 to 2, as did the genetically engineered potatoes. The products were sold for the same price, and while many consumers were more interested in taste, the primary selling point for others was the reduction in pesticide sprays and worm damage.

So why not just label all GMOs (genetically modified organisms), as such foods are routinely, though mistakenly, called? Because lkabeling is not about choice. Greenpeace and other activist groups state plainly in their literature that the products of genetic engineering may cause unknown, theoretical health or environmental harm and should therefore be banned. However, in the absence of a ban, everything should be labeled to provide consumer choice - thus producing a de facto ban.

The number-one selling tomato paste in the U.K. in 1998 was made by Zeneca, sold in supermarkets at a slightly lower price, and labeled as derived from genetically modified tomatoes. But when a media frenzy arose in the U.K. in the fall of 1998, stores rushed to remove genetically engineered products, including the tomato paste. So the previous number one seller was no longer available. And still isn't.

Couldn't happen here? When two local Zehrs supermarkets tried to provide genetically engineered sweet corn to their stores last fall, they were overruled by corporate headquarters in Toronto. The reason? Too much controversy. The same reason that the big U.S. processors have said no to genetically engineered potatoes. Yet sales figures had already shown that consumers preferred the genetically engineered product. Perhaps processors aren't good at making marketing decisions either.

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