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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

GM Wheat

Air Date: Week of

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A movement is afoot in western Canada to keep a new variety of GM wheat from being sold there. Some farmers fear the product could wind up contaminating their organic crops. Amy Jo Ehman reports.


CURWOOD: Wheat is one of the few major crops grown these days without genetic modification, but that’s about to change. The Monsanto Company is now testing genetically-modified wheat that’s resistant to its herbicide, Roundup. And Monsanto has already applied for permission to sell what it calls “Roundup-ready” wheat to farmers in the U.S. and Canada.

Some organic farmers in Canada’s grain belt are trying to stop Monsanto. In Saskatchewan a few years ago, at least one farmer’s canola crop was tainted with its GM counterpart. And now, Canadian organic farmers worry that GM wheat will cross-pollinate with their crops, making their grain unfit for organic certification. Amy Jo Ehman reports.


EHMAN: When they’re not making music, the guys on stage are farmers. They usually play in the countryside, but tonight they’re in Saskatoon, entertaining an audience that’s a mix of music fans, environmental activists, city folk, and farmers. They’re here to support a message of defiance and to raise money for a lawsuit against the agrochemical companies Aventis and Monsanto.

HOFFMAN: The right to farm and consume free of GMOs is definitely being threatened.

EHMAN: The lawsuit was filed by two organic farmers in Saskatchewan who say their way of life is threatened by the introduction of genetically-modified seed.


EHMAN: Larry Hoffman is one of those farmers. He works the land near the town of Spaulding: flat, wide-open countryside with fields as far as the eye can see. The Hoffman family farm went organic in 1989.

HOFFMAN: We farm about 2400 acres of certified organic. And we plant a number of crops, basically peas, lentils, wheat oats, barley, fall rye.

EHMAN: Canola is not on that list. He stopped growing it in 1995, the year Aventis began to sell the first GM canola. Hoffman feared that GM canola from his neighbors’ fields would cross-pollinate and contaminate his organic crop.

HOFFMAN: You know, it moves around by wind, by water, by, you know, on rolling on top of the snow and the little surround seeds just move. You know, I guess in the ideal world it should stay in where it’s planted, but it doesn’t. We consider it a weed.

EHMAN: Now he’s worried the same thing might happen with wheat. Organic farmers risk losing their certification if their crops contain any genetically-modified plants. If GM wheat is allowed into Canada, Hoffman says, like canola, he would be forced to stop growing it.

HOFFMAN: That’s two markets I’m out of. How many more can I be out of before I’m down to…I’m not a certified organic farmer anymore?

EHMAN: The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are seeking compensation for the lost profits of canola, and an injunction to stop the release of genetically-modified wheat. Monsanto has offered to remove any unwanted GM crops, but organic farmers say that’s ridiculous, because the only way to tell if a plant is one of Monsanto’s is to spray it with the chemical herbicide Roundup. If it dies, it’s an ordinary plant; if it lives, it’s GM. But since organic farmers can’t use chemicals on their fields, that’s not an option.

But Monsanto makes no apologies to organic farmers. Trish Jordan is Monsanto’s public relations representative in Western Canada.

JORDAN: They’re plants. Stuff blows around. You can’t stop that. You know, I can flippantly say Monsanto’s a powerful company and we do come up with lots of solutions to things, but we can’t stop plants from blowing around. I mean, it’s just not going to happen.

EHMAN: She says organic farmers are unrealistic to think they can farm completely GM-free.

JORDAN: That’s something that they must have decided somehow as an industry that they could deliver against zero. But so I, you know, zero is not going to happen.

EHMAN: Not everyone is wary of this technology. Sixty percent of the canola grown in Canada is genetically engineered. And across the United States farmers are growing genetically-engineered corn, soybeans and cotton. Right now, genetically-modified wheat is in the final stages of a government approval process in both Canada and the United States and is growing in test fields across the prairies. The locations of these fields are kept secret because the companies are fearful of sabotage. GM wheat could be ready for release by 2004 or 5.


BEAUDOIN: Come in, Walter. Good morning.

WALTER: Good morning.

BEAUDOIN: How are you today, Walter?

WALTER: Not too bad.


WALTER: Got the coffee pot on?

BEAUDOIN: Oh, you betcha.

EHMAN: Across the Saskatchewan countryside near the town of Maymont a neighbor drops in for coffee at the farmhouse of Dale Beaudoin.


BEAUDOIN: How’s the cattle doing there, Walter?

WALTER: Not too bad. They’re actually doing pretty good.

EHMAN: Beaudoin farms 620 organic acres with livestock and grains. He grew canola several years after most organic farmers had stopped.

BEAUDOIN: It was a good cash crop, canola, and so I took a gamble growing it.

EHMAN: But he lost that gamble in 1999. That’s when he sent a sample of his canola to a European buyer. It was rejected because it contained a trace of GM. He did eventually sell that canola, but for a lot less money. He won’t grow it again.

BEAUDOIN: I figured the fiasco could get worse. You might get a shipment down, you know, down East or down in the states and it’s turned back on you and you’d have all the expense to get it back.

EHMAN: That’s why Beaudoin joined the lawsuit. He says organic farmers didn’t fight the introduction of GM canola but they’re not sitting down and waiting for GM wheat to appear on the market. And this time they have some powerful allies in their fight. Large farm organizations like the Canadian Wheat Board and the National Farmers Union are also opposed to its release. That’s because most of the countries that buy wheat from North America say they will stop buying it altogether, organic or not, if GM wheat is introduced. These governments fear the accidental introduction of genetically-modified material into their food supply.

That possible loss of major markets is also why farmers in Montana and North Dakota have tried unsuccessfully to ban GM wheat in their states. Monsanto says it’s working on this problem. It plans to introduce GM wheat slowly, based on contracts between farmers and buyers in North America and Mexico only. Monsanto’s Trish Jordan.

JORDAN: We’ll match up supply to demand. If customers want to buy this, they’ll ask for X amount of tons and that’s how many tons we’ll grow. There will be farmers that will grow this.

EHMAN: Monsanto says it will segregate the GM wheat by using buffer zones in the fields, bypassing the conventional grain elevator system and shipping it in dedicated trucks rather than in rail cars where it might get mixed up with non-GM seeds. But even with that, the company admits complete separation of GM seeds will be impossible.

The two farmers who filed the lawsuit have applied to make it a class action suit on behalf of all organic farmers in Canada. They expect the court case could take years. They’re just hoping they have that much time before GM wheat is a fact of life on the prairies.

MALE: We say it’s not too late, especially for wheat. But swift action is needed to stop it.

EHMAN: For Living on Earth, I’m Amy Jo Ehman in Saskatoon, Canada.


CURWOOD: Just ahead, living with unintended consequences. The man who pioneered the science for Agent Orange speaks out. You’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Roy Buchanan “Secret Love” My Babe, Waterhouse Records (1980)]

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living On Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: Ale Moller “Det Sjungande Berget” The Horse and the Crane, Northside (1996)]



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