2-Plants: Canadian scientists debate GE wheat study
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TITLE: 'Unsafe' GM wheat report blasted
Conclusions 'opinion' based on market concerns, says U of A
SOURCE: The Edmonton Journal, Canada, by Allyson Jeffs
DATE: Jul 17, 2003
------------------- archive: http://www.genet-info.org/ -------------------
'Unsafe' GM wheat report blasted
Conclusions 'opinion' based on market concerns, says U of A scientist
EDMONTON - A passerby would never guess that the grain growing in an
Edmonton-area field is at the centre of a national controversy.
Isolated by a buffer of black earth, the rows of Monsanto's Roundup Ready
wheat, are part of a study into how the genetically modified grain
performs under various weed-control regimes.
At the centre of the controversy is a recent report that concluded the
Monsanto product is environmentally unsafe.
"I believe it's done with the best of intentions, but I do not think it's
science," said Linda Hall, an Alberta Agriculture weed scientist who
researches the biosafety of transgenic crops.
The study relied more on "opinions and extrapolations from existing data"
than direct research, said Hall who is conducting the Monsanto trials and
also teaches at the University of Alberta. "The conclusions go way beyond
even the small amount of information in the paper."
She worries the scientific debate about genetically modified wheat is
being clouded by market-related concerns.
The Canadian Wheat Board, which commissioned the study, opposes the
introduction of Monsanto's product because of its potential impact on
export markets. Eighty-two per cent of wheat board customers have
threatened to buy grain elsewhere if Monsanto's product is grown in
Canada rather than risk having it mixed with their shipments.
But Rene Van Acker, one of three University of Manitoba scientists who
wrote the report, said its conclusions are based on standard scientific
models that can't be readily dismissed. "It's not opinion at all," he
said. "All of it is based on the literature."
He stands by the study's conclusion that "under current conditions, the
release of Roundup Ready wheat in western Canada would be environmentally
Monsanto has applied to federal regulators for approval to market the
wheat, which has been genetically altered to resist the company's Roundup
herbicide. If the company receives approval, farmers who plant the wheat
would be able to spray the herbicide on their crops without harming them.
The U of M report warns that herbicide-resistant wheat is likely to find
its way into the fields of farmers who aren't growing Monsanto's grain
through volunteers -- individual plants that grow like weeds. It notes
that Roundup Ready canola, introduced in the 1990s has become so
pervasive that even seed from non-GM canola seedlots in Western Canada
has been "contaminated" with genetically engineered herbicide resistant
The report predicts the herbicide-resistant trait will move "from wheat
crop to wheat crop in a fashion similar to that seen in canola."
Hall, who did some of the initial research on transgenic canola, disputes
that scenario, saying the two crops behave differently. While rows of
canola planted side by side will cross-pollinate at a rate of 20 per
cent, wheat cross-pollinates at a rate of only one per cent.
And while the experience with herbicide-resistant canola is being held up
as a warning sign, Hall said the crop is a success story.
"Fifty-five per cent of growers use Roundup Ready canola and more than 80
per cent use some herbicide-resistant variety," she said. "The (cross-
pollinating) problem is well-understood. Farmers learn to manage it."
But Van Acker says the rate of cross-pollinating will be affected by
factors other than plant biology. There are millions more tonnes of wheat
than canola grown in Canada each year and wheat is more often used in
crop rotation, factors which add to the cumulative impact of cross-
Eventually, even farmers who don't grow Roundup Ready wheat will be faced
with increased herbicide costs to control volunteers, Van Acker said. And
that could threaten the sustainability of direct seeding -- a planting
method that preserves soil moisture and prevents erosion.
Seeds are injected into the ground rather than planted in tilled soil,
and farmers using the practice are dependent on broad-spectrum herbicides
But if an additional herbicide is needed, costs will rise. The report
estimates that farmers who don't use Roundup Ready wheat can expect to
spend an additional $7.50 to $16 per acre to control volunteers.
Hall said the costs imposed on farmers, particularly those who are not
growing Monsanto's transgenic wheat, need to be addressed, but she
doesn't think they will turn farmers off direct seeding.
"Farmers who have invested $120,000 in equipment for direct seeding
aren't going to get out of it," she said.
"They will make small adjustments instead."
European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
Kleine Wiese 6
D - 38116 Braunschweig