Frankenfoods: The damning proof
Canada was the cradle of the GM food revolution promising farmers vast crops and untold profits. Seven years on, that dream has become a nightmare from which there is now no escape
The soft blue fields of flax that bloom only early in the morning, spread out like a lake against the vast prairies of Saskatchewan in Canada. Neighbouring crops of yellow oilseed rape dazzle in the early light and an eagle glides across the pristine sky. Nature could not appear more peacefully at work - and few images could be more misleading.
These vast plains have been used as nothing short of a giant laboratory by international biotechnology companies. For it is here that the corporate 'scientists' have sown the seeds of their farming revolution in a bid to create a multi-billion-dollar global industry pushing geneticaHy modified (GM) food to the world.
At first, Canada's farmers embraced the new technology. They were told it would bring crop yields that were bigger and cheaper to produce than ever before. Times were hard, and they were eager for a miracle. But less than a decade later, they are reaping a terrible legacy.
Their produce is rejected in the global marketplace, costs are rising, and the livelihood of organic farmers and those who use conventional techniques is threatened by the spectre of GM contamination. GM seed is now spilling across 60 million acres of prime farmland.
At the same time, highly toxic chemicals? also sold at a huge profit by the biotech giants ?have had to be reintroduced to contain the growth of'superweeds'. These are the result of wild plants becoming infected with herbicideresistant genes from GM crops.
This week, such a nightmare moved a step closer to Britain following a landmark ruling by Brussels in which the European Commission said governments that tried to ban GM crops would be in breach of EU law. I went to Canada to see what Britain might learn from the farms of Saskatchewan.
So far, we have simply refused to accept so-called 'Frankenstein food amid fears over its environmental impact, and also because it has not been proven safe As long as the public has not wanted to buy GM food, the supermarkets have not sold it.
But Tony Blair's government will now almost certainly use the European ruling to open the floodgates for these 'Frankenstein' crops to be grown commercially on British farms.
Mr Blair has made it clear that he backs GM and will welcome the likes of Monsanto and other GM giants.
The GM Science Review Panel?the body set up by the Prime Minister to tell the public whether or not GM foods are safe - is dominated by scientists employed by Monsanto and other companies such as Syngenta, and those who rely on these companies for their research funds. Cultivation of these crops may begin in Britain as early as next year.
Yet the message from Canada is starkly clear. At the outset of my trip, I anticipated beguiling arguments for and against GM crops.
But what I found was a battered community of farmers facing the worst crisis since the great depression of the Thirties, and the smoothspeaking apologists for the biotech companies trying to push the Canadian government to a point of no return on the issue with the introduction of GM wheat?apparently against all logic, as we shall see.
'We were told it was progress,' Arnold Taylor, a 60-year-old Canadian farmer, told me. 'And now we're trapped in a giant experiment over which we have no control. The British government should look to Canada. Once you open the door to GM, you may never be able to close it.'
As Arnold and I headed south along the seemingly endless prairie highway in his pick-up truck, he explained how the Canadian experiment began unravelling.
The first GM crops planted by Canadian farmers, in 1996, were oilseed rape?a valuable source of income. But instead of providing greater yields at a cheaper price, as promised, many of these crops failed to match conventional rape.
At the same time, Canadian farmers were shunned by their wealthiest customers, including Britain, amid intense suspicion over 'Frankenfoods'.
The organic and conventional farmers lost out, too. Their rape crops were also boycotted by wealthy international markets amid fears that they might have been contaminated by neighbouring GM crops.
In 1997, Canadian farmers exported 500,000 tonnes of rape to EU countries. Last year it plummeted to 5,000 tonnes.
The refusal of the rest of the world (outside of North America) to buy into the GM revolution has also cost Monsanto dear: it suffered more than £1 billion in losses last year.
So now it is more determined than ever not to relinquish its grip on the prairies - hence the campaign to introduce GM wheat.
Undoubtedly this would prove even more disastrous than oilseed rape. Wheat is one of the most important crops to Canadian farmers 90 per cent of whom are opposed to the introduction of the GM variety.
The GM contamination of conventional crops would intensify, and the risk of'superweeds, resistant to all herbicides, would increase.
The wheat market would also be crippled. No one wants GM wheat in Europe - or even in Canada, where consumers are now also beginning to question biotech foods.
'They tell us that GM food isn't bad for our health, but the jury may be out on that for years,' says Arnold Taylor. 'And why should we believe them anyway? They told us GM would help farming, and it has brought nothing but trouble.
'They told US it wouldn't spread to other crops, that it could be contained, but now it's spreading everywhere.'
Two hours further along the highway. just outside the tiny town of Nikomis, we stop beside a pretty white wooden farmhouse. Organic farmer Pat Neville, 54. greets us and takes us down to see his crops.
The flax's blue blossom has alread faded with the morning. But in the middle of the field, flaunting itself brazenly, is a cluster of bright yellow GM rape that has invaded his crop from a nearby field.
Mr Neville is the latest Canadian farmer to be contarr.inated by GM seed that has blown across the so-called buffer zones designed to isolate GM from other crops.
As we wander round his farm, he points to other rogue' plants that have sprouted up in his organic soil, and runs his hands through his hair in despair.
He first noticed the rogue oilseed rape three weeks ago.When Monsanto finally agreed to take samples, it confirmed that the plants had indeed come from a GM crop and the company offered to send a team to remove it by hand.
But for Mr Neville, the damage is already done - and the implications are devastating.
As well as the prospect of losing his flax crop, he will not be able to grow any crops that could cross-pollinate with the GM rape for up to seven years. This includes the lucrative pedigree sweet clover which he had hoped to plant next year.
Even more worryingly, if the GM seed continues to spread, he risks losing his organic status altogether.
'How do I know when it's going to blow across again?' says Mr Neville. 'And how do I stop it?
'Every time I use my combine harvester, I'll have to clean it between fields. That takes seven hours, and you can never be sure you've got everything off.'
Despite all the assurances that buffer zones would keep GM crops separate, that cross-pollination between GM and non-GM crops was not a serious risk, and that 'superweeds' were only a theoretical concern, these problems are now a reality in Canada.
'They told us this wouldn't happen,' says Mr Neville. 'But the fact is, GM is out there now and nobody can control it.'
FOR 100 years, farmers have ploughed this land. The first pioneers, who came here in 1903, marked out their plots with wooden posts and nurtured crops by hand through scorching summers and droughts, followed by freezing winters.
Gradually, the modern world caught up with farming. But Canadians are convinced that GM technology is pushing Nature too far, and are fighting to reclaim their land from the 'corporate scientists'.
A group of 1,000 organic farmers have launched a legal challenge against Monsanto on two fronts. First, they want compensation for being driven out of the oilseed rape market by GM crops; second, they want to prevent the company launching GM wheat and driving them out of that market, too.
The first farmers to put their names to the legal challenge are Larry and Olwen Hoffman, who live in the tiny town of Spalding in Saskatchewan.
'We just allowed the GM technology to move in without questioning it,' says Mr Hoffman, 50. 'There was no debate, nothing. But now we are learning lessons that the rest of the world, especially Britain, should heed.
'For a start, what happens in a laboratory is not what happens in real fields. This stuff is spreading and no one can stop it. That's what is so scary.'
At least they now have the support of virtually all Canadian farmers? and the majority of consumers, too? in trying to put a stop to GM wheat. A recent BSE alert here prompted the nation's first large-scale food scare, and people are becoming more aware of what they are eating.
If GM wheat goes ahead, Canadian farmers risk losing 80 per cent of their customers. Yet it seems the Canadian government is as intransigent as ours on this matter.
So what are the lessons for Britain, as we are pushed inexorably towards GM crops?
They could not be clearer. Despite the endless reports and studies by various interested bodies making this claim or that, GM crops simply do not deliver what is promised.
At the offices of Canada's National Farmers' Union in Saskatoon, Darrin Quarlman points to a filing cabinet filled with reports. All of them indicate the failure of the GM experiment.
'In a real democracy, the government would say in the interests of the citizens that we don't want this,' says Mr Quarlman.
'The fact is, GM technology has nothing to offer. It's like a doctor saying "Here's a pill. It won't make you feel any better, and it might be bad for you." Who wants to swallow that? But Monsanto want it, and we don't have a real democracy.'
Only one thing stands between GM crops and the British public and that is the fact that we do not want to eat them.
But our own Government, which has so far paid scant regard to consumer concerns, has now been given the perfect excuse by Brussels to literally shove GM food down our throats.
During my visit to Canada, former environment minister Michael Meacher was also on a fact-finding mission in Saskatchewan, accompanied by the Soil Association. He was left in little doubt by what he saw.
'The first and most striking issue is contamination,' says Mr Meacher, who was sacked from the cabinet following his outspoken criticism of GM technology.
Co-existence with GM crops is impossible, Mr Meacher believes. 'It gets everywhere,' he says.
'That's what Canada shows. And if you can't separate crops out here in the Canadian prairies, what hope do you have in a tiny country like ours?
'Are we seriously proposing to support GM - for which there is no market, and which the people do not want - at the expense of organic crops, which people do want and for which there is a growing market? Can we really allow these powerful corporate interests to enforce a result not justified by science and not backed by the people?'
Monsanto strenuously denies that GM crops are a failure in Canada, and insists that the number of farmers turning to GM is still rising.
It also claims that it would not introduce GM wheat until it has received regulatory approval in North America, Japan and Europe.
'The fact is, all but 11 per cent of oilseed rape grown there is now GM - because it works, and because it has been successful,' says Tony Combs, director of corporate affairs for Monsanto UK.
'This year, 89 per cent of the 11.6million acres of Canadian oilseed rape are GM, and that's because it keeps costs lower and it produces better yields.'
The stakes become higher every day. This is not some new gadgetry. It is our food, and it is at the heart of our survival.
Yet somehow it has fallen into the hands of the biotech giants, who appear to have gained an unprecedented stranglehold over the most important commodity in the world.
It is nothing short of a global scandal - and yet it has taken place under our noses.
As the fields recede into the distance and I finish my journey across the prairies I remember the words of my guide Arnold Taylor.
'The land forgives a lot,' he said. 'But this is a step too far. We play with nature at our peril. And Nature always bats last. She'll have the final say.
'We think we've got it sorted - but we've really no idea what we are doing.'