6-Regulation: CFIA walks tightrope on Monsanto's GE wheat trials
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TITLE: CFIA walks tightrope on GM crop trials
SOURCE: The Western Producer, Canada, by Barry Wilson
DATE: Mar 13, 2003
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CFIA walks tightrope on GM crop trials
Late last year, Monsanto Canada Inc. informed the Canadian Food
Inspection Agency that it was unable to meet the latest requirements for
isolating plots of experimental genetically modified wheat.
The CFIA had expanded the required separation distance to 30 metres in
the spring of 2001, but Monsanto told the agency in a Sept. 12 letter
that while trials already started and scheduled to continue until the end
of 2003 did not meet the new rule, the agency's plant biosafety office
had approved the arrangement.
"The PBO has allowed these ongoing wheat trials to continue despite the
change in isolation distance, under the expectation that the applicant
would take all reasonable measures to contain the novel plant material,"
It is the kind of dilemma that has the CFIA walking on eggshells over how
to deal with the growing incidence of GM experimentation and the growing
public skepticism and opposition.
GM test sites are kept secret at the company's request, but CFIA is under
constant pressure to be more open with what it knows.
It is facing, and resisting, demands that no GM wheat variety be approved
until the market is ready.
It is also scrambling to keep track of a growing number of applications
for controlled field tests of GM wheat, barley, tobacco and sugar beets,
making sure that the tests meet the rules and are properly monitored to
keep the risk of volunteer contamination of nearby sites to a minimum.
CFIA correspondence and internal memos obtained by Ottawa access-to-
information researcher Ken Rubin show an agency closely watching GM crop
trials to make sure everything is done by the book, while looking over
its shoulder at the swirling political and scientific debate.
They also reveal how sensitive the agency is to the public debate,
preparing "media lines" explaining the CFIA position whenever criticism
The documents include an April 2002 reminder to Monsanto that if test
seed is to be disposed of by burying it, it must be buried at least one m
It includes extensive correspondence with Monsanto last year in which the
CFIA refused to approve a wheat test proposal until the protections
promised in the plan were upgraded.
Typical was a March 22, 2002, reminder to the company from Lucy Reed of
the plant biosafety office that the rules for post-harvest monitoring had
"During the two post-trial growing seasons, the trial site must be
monitored once every two weeks to ensure that any volunteer plants and
related species are removed before flowering," she wrote. "Please be sure
to adjust your post-harvest monitoring plans for the two trial sites
But while CFIA officials keep a close private eye on GM variety
development, the agency documents also make clear they realize many in
"civil society" believe they are too close to the companies and not
always acting in the public interest.
There was the case of a heritage wheat grower in Alberta demanding to
know where Monsanto was testing GM wheat. The Ontario Tobacco Board
raised similar questions about GM tobacco and possible contamination.
The CFIA refused to reveal Monsanto sites.
A memo to federal agriculture minister Lyle Vanclief said conflicting
demands were handcuffing the agency.
"The CFIA is caught between on the one hand wanting to provide
information about its activities to Canadians and to protect their
interests, and on the other hand protecting the business information of
researchers conducting confined trials," wrote Stephen Yarrow of the
plant biosafety office.
The agency walks the same line when responding to demands that market
acceptance be assured before GM wheat is approved.
After an April 2002 Western Producer story about Monsanto's plan to file
for GM wheat registration, government commentators were told to assure
questioners that the earliest registration could be possible was spring 2004.
A draft set of media responses included substituting the original word
"risk." with the more neutral term "market implications."
"We recognize the need to find solutions to the potential market
implications the registration of Roundup Ready wheat may pose," said the
prepared media response. "The government of Canada is encouraged by the
grain industry's efforts to work together to address this concern.... The
government is committed to ensuring the introduction of new crops is
accomplished in a manner that will satisfy consumers' requirements and
result in net benefits to Canadian farmers."