Monsanto Canada continuing trials on GM wheat

TORONTO, Canada, August 19, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Colin Perkel, Canadian Press, 08/17/04(CP): Field trials of genetically modified wheat are still being conducted in Canada despite a pledge earlier this year by multinational biotech giant Monsanto that the testing would be abandoned, critics said Tuesday.

In a letter to Greenpeace Canada late last month, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed that 16 Monsanto trials of so-called Roundup Ready wheat are continuing "to allow researchers to complete their research." Greenpeace, one of several environmental groups opposed to the trials, said Monsanto should have torn up the fields as it said it would.

"The trials are a danger for both the environment and for the potential for release for farmers," said Pat Venditti, genetic engineering campaigner for Greenpeace.

"It could pose a serious threat to Canada's ability to export wheat crops."

While Monsanto acknowledged the trials were ongoing, it said they were to allow non-Monsanto scientists and, in one case, a graduate student to finish their research for "academic and publishing requirements," said spokeswoman Trish Jordan.

"Monsanto is not doing field trials," Jordan said from Winnipeg.

Another 22 test sites were destroyed, she said.

A food inspection agency spokesman said the trials at eight undisclosed locations cover about 3.4 hectares.

"These are not Monsanto trials per se," said Phil Macdonald, the agency's acting director for plant bio-safety in Ottawa.

Still, Greenpeace said they should have been abandoned.

"We don't think there should be any field trials of this crop . . . particularly if it's not going to be commercialized," Venditti said.

Genetically modifying crops involves manipulating their genetic material to produce special characteristics. In May, Monsanto declared it would "discontinue breeding and field-level research" into wheat resistant to the popular herbicide Roundup.

Many export markets, Japan and the European Union among them, have warned they would stop buying wheat from Canada if any of it is genetically modified.

Monsanto's decision followed a campaign by critics who argue that little is known about the impact of genetically altered crops on the environment or human health.

Also, a government report in January suggested farmers would need to use more pesticides if the wheat were to be widely cultivated.

Monsanto also withdrew requests to Ottawa to allow unconfined environmental release of the crop and assessments of the wheat's safety for animals and people.

While Ottawa insists it has tough rules to isolate the fields, critics maintain there are no guarantees contamination of other fields won't occur.

"It is worrisome they would be doing this," said Marc Loiselle of the Organic Agriculture Protection Fund in Hague, Sask.

"The understanding was that all trials were to be abandoned and . . . existing test plots would be destroyed."

Citing concerns about vandalism, the federal government refused to disclose the locations of the plots.

The secrecy is another problem, Venditti said.

"If you are a farmer or producer half a mile or 100 yards from a genetically engineered wheat trial, you have no way of knowing if what's growing next door is genetically engineered," Venditti said.