August 8, 2003 -- CropChoice news --The Independent (UK), 08/06/03:
What would happen if early next year the Government decided
to allow GM crops to be grown commercially in this country?
To find out, go to Canada. where GM crops were introduced
into the prairies in 1997. With what results? I have just
spent a week in Saskatchewan and Ontario finding out.
When the technology was first applied in the prairies seven
years ago, the farmers were enthusiastic. Monsanto and the
other big biotech companies promised that there would be higher
yields, less herbicide usage, little or no cross-contamination
and ready containment of "volunteers" (plants that
survive the harvest and become weeds when different crops
are later planted). It has not turned out like that at all.
Yields were found to be lower because contamination was wider
than predicted, herbicide use was not reduced, and often had
to be increased, and volunteers were much more difficult to
deal with than expected. There were no gains to consumers
that might have balanced the losses to the farming producers.
And the environmental impacts, assumed to be benign on the
specious principle that GM crops were "substantially
equivalent'' to non-GM varieties, turned out to be seriously
adverse. There was damage to wildlife, new superweeds were
generated and ecosystems that support insects and birds were
There are several lessons that Britain can, and should, learn
from the Canadian experience. The most important is that "co-existence''
- a framework to ensure that organic and conventional farming
can survive and prosper alongside GM farming - is a mirage.
In Saskatchewan, organic oilseed rape (which the Canadians
call canola) has been wiped out by cross-contamination from
Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" GM canola. The issue
for Britain is that if it is impossible to separate off organic
oilseed rape in the vast spaces of the Canada prairies, it
is inconceivable that it can be kept separate in the very
much smaller land area of Britain where farms exist cheek
by jowl together.
Even more disturbing is that pollution of organic crops does
not come primarily airborne, from pollen, but from contamination
of the seed supply. The most famous example of this in Canada
is the case of the farmer Percy Schmeiser. He saved seed from
his harvest and planted it the next year, only to find that
some of it was GM, even though he had never allowed any GM
crops on his farm. Extraordinarily, he was taken to court
by Monsanto on the grounds that the company had patented the
gene in the GM plants on his farm and he had infringed the
patent. The company won the lawsuit. If that has been happening
in Canada, there is no reason to doubt that Monsanto will
use the same tactics in Britain.
Another problem is the removal of volunteers and GM weeds.
Volunteers are already resistant to the chemical weedkiller
(glysophate, known as Roundup Ready) used for cultivation,
and weeds and other plants can also acquire this resistance
through the transgene flow from the GM oilseed rape and wheat.
So in addition to the two or three field sprays by glysophate,
it is then necessary to use other, old-fashioned, toxic chemicals
such as 2,4-D to destroy remaining weeds. The President of
the Canadian NFU, whom I met, quoted a university study showing
that the cost of chemical spraying to Canadian farmers now
amounted to nearly £200m a year.
This problem is further compounded by two other unexpected
factors that I encountered in Canada and that would also occur
in Britain if GM commercialization were ever introduced here.
One is that volunteers don't just spring up the year after
the original harvest. The seeds may subsist in the ground
for years, and volunteers often arise three to five years
Labelling and liability are also issues both in Canada and
the UK. Contrary to the general impression that North America
is quite content with GM and not worried by it, several recent
polls have shown that 92-97 per cent of Canadians believe
that their government should require companies to label GM
products. In the EU, labelling of GM food will soon be required
above a 0.9 per cent threshold, though that will still not
tell consumers what they really want to know - whether this
food is GM-free or not.
Liability - the question of who pays if an organic or conventional
farmer has his business damaged or his livelihood ruined by
contamination from GM crops - is now becoming a crunch issue
both in Canada and Europe. There is huge resistance from the
biotech industry on both sides of the Atlantic to accepting
any responsibility for the contamination they cause.
One other highly relevant piece of evidence shown to me by
the Canadian NFU about the current battleground in Canada
concerns the tactics adopted by Monsanto to get the unpopular
idea of GM wheat accepted. A draft letter, to be signed by
prominent farmers in key positions, details the "mutual
understanding and agreement" between each of them and
Monsanto about how they will assist, secretly, in "ensuring
the positive introduction of Roundup Ready Wheat in Canada".
We have to ask: is the same happening here, or will it happen
here in the future?
The author was UK Minister for the Environment from 1997