Cabinet papers warn Canada off GM crops
Farmers fear long-term threat to food exports
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Thursday November 13, 2003
A secret briefing to the Canadian government has warned that the country's massive food exports are at risk from its continued use of GM crops.
The paper, which has been obtained under the Access of Information Act, warns the cabinet of the "pressing need to immediately address these concerns".
Such fears contrast with the government's repeated endorsement of GM crops and technology as a great opportunity for Canada.
The paper, which was drafted by a senior civil servant, says that "producers are becoming worried about losing markets and losing choice over what they produce", while consumers are becoming more worried that they cannot distinguish between GM and non-GM products.
"These concerns could precipitate a loss of confidence in the integrity of the Canadian food system, which could be very disruptive to the domestic system as well as Canada's ability to export to demanding markets."
Some pages of the secret document, which have been blanked out, concern advice on how to deal with the growing public fears and the potential loss of further export markets for Canadian goods.
Canada is the third-largest producer of GM crops after the US and Argentina. But the paper says that the production of GM canola (oilseed rape) is affecting the value of non- GM canola in some markets. It says: "The EU was effectively closed to all Canadian commodity canola."
The Canadian farmers' greatest fear, however, is the introduction of GM wheat, of which trials are imminent.
The Canadian Wheat Board has just surveyed its overseas customers in Europe, Japan and the US, with 82% saying that they would not take GM wheat. The export market for milling wheat into bread is worth £2bn a year to Canada.
The paper says that large Canadian producers in other fields have already taken defensive action. Flax producers, for instance, will not produce a GM version, while the largest potato processor, McCains, has declared it will not purchase GM potatoes. Jim Robbins, a farmer and business consultant for the Canadian National Farmers Union said that large exports of oilseed rape had been lost to Europe as it was impossible to separate GM and conventional crops. In Canada, they had all been mixed together.
Cross contamination, it said, was now "irreversible".
Canadian farmers feared the same would happen with wheat, prompting a loss of exports and a crash in prices.
"I cannot see how it would be possible to separate GM wheat and non-GM wheat," Mr Robbins said. "It is also very difficult, not to say impossible, as we have discovered with canola, to prevent the spread of GM canola plants into conventional crops."
He said the Canadian government's problem involves the lack of legal regulation to thwart the introduction of GM wheat, prompting the potential for contamination of conventional crops.
Mr Robbins believes fears for the environment could be a useful defence, pointing out that if GM wheat - basically a grass - escaped into the Canadian countryside it might become an extremely difficult weed to eradicate because it would be herbicide resistant.
He said: "That might provide an escape route for Canada, like the GM field trials have in Britain."