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Bitter Harvest: Why the Canadian Wheat Board Should Reconsider its Call to Ban Genetically Engineered Wheat

01.oct.01, Douglas Powell, Food Engineering p. 32-33

Should politicians make marketing decisions? Based on the track record, the answer is a resounding no.

...Canada and the U.S. can grow food for export, but apparently only under the conditions set by imperialistic overlords, regardless of the environmental damage sustained.

Yet that is exactly what the Canadian Wheat Board and the various social engineers at Greenpeace et al. were asking of Ottawa when they held a press conference this summer to ask for a ban on genetically modified wheat.

No different than legislators in wheat producing states like North Dakota who contemplated similar moves before thinking better of it.

The story shakes out something like this.

Canada grows wheat. Lots of it, some 17.5 million tonnes worth over $3 billion to Canada's export dependent economy. Canada and the U.S. sell a lot of wheat to Europe. Monsanto makes agricultural chemicals. Monsanto has some nifty science to farm in more sustainable ways, or, as some critics say, sell more herbicide. Europe hates Monsanto and everything American that Monsanto is perceived to represent. The EU has come up with some new labeling guidelines which, if approved, are supposed to help lessen trans-Atlantic trade and consumer tension but in reality will be absolutely unenforceable and increase the costs of already ridiculously high foodstuffs in the EU.

The Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) wants to keep its customers, especially Europeans, happy. But by entering into a marriage of convenience with the likes of Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians, and others, the CWB is practicing political expedience, short-sighted marketing, and, above all, is jeopardizing Canada's $20 billion agricultural surplus by asking the Minister of Agriculture to abandon science-based decision-making in the name of consumer preference.

The Minister should politely decline.

CWB as well as American counterparts, are worried that Monsanto's herbicide-tolerant, Roundup Ready wheat will make Europeans wary of Canadian wheat. Nevermind that the company has yet to file an application and has insisted it will not do so unless farmers and consumers are on side.

Why would any farmer grow something that customers may protest against? Why would processors include an ingredient that may lead to some measure of consumer complaints, no matter how small?

It has to do with ecological imperialism. That is, Canada and the U.S. can grow food for export, but apparently only under the conditions set by imperialistic overlords, regardless of the environmental damage sustained.

For example, according to research commissioned by the Canola Council of Canada, over 80 per cent of canola growers used genetically modified varieties in 2000, predominately Roundup Ready canola as part of a no- or minimal-till system in which seed is directly drilled into the soil rather than relying on plowing. This has helped reverse decades of soil erosion, but no-till requires a relatively benign, broad spectrum weed-killer like Roundup. So Roundup Ready crops, according to the farmers who buy them, allow for more sustainable farming.

Last year, the use of herbicide-tolerant canola was estimated to save 31.2 million litres of fuel, with the environmental savings as well as direct fuel costs of an estimated $13.1 million.

Still, Roundup Ready wheat is something growers don't get excited about; but the CWB will almost certainly be singing a different tune when genetically engineered fusarium resistant wheat becomes available.

Consumers don't get excited about either.

But they do get excited about whole foods.

Last year, one of my farmer colleagues grew some genetically engineered sweet corn and table potatoes. Neither the Bt sweet corn nor the potatoes required any insecticides to manage the key pests. After harvest, the two crops were sold in his farm market in Hillsburgh, Ont., fully labelled, alongside their conventional counterparts.

The genetically engineered Bt sweet corn outsold the conventional by a margin of 3-2. Same for the potatoes. The two products were sold for the same price, and while many consumers were more interested in taste, for others, the primary selling point was the reduction in pesticide sprays and worm damage.

So why not just label all GMOs (genetically modified organisms), as such foods are routinely, though mistakenly, called?

Labelling is not about choice. Greenpeace and other activist groups state plainly in their literature that the products of genetic engineering may cause some unknown, theoretical health or environmental harm and should therefore be banned. However, in the absence of a ban, everything should be labelled to provide consumer choice -- and that will produce a de facto ban.

The number one selling tomato paste in the U.K. in 1998 was made by Zeneca, sold in supermarkets at a slightly lower price, and labelled as derived from genetically modified tomatoes. But when a media frenzy arose in the U.K. in the fall of 1998, stores rushed to remove genetically engineered products, including the tomato paste. So the previous number one seller was no longer available. And still isn't.

Couldn't happen here? When two local Zehrs supermarkets asked us to provide genetically engineered sweet corn to their stores last fall, they were overruled by corporate headquarters in Toronto.

Why? Too much controversy. The same reason that the big U.S. processors have said no to Bt potatoes. Yet we had shown that consumers preferred the genetically engineered product.

Perhaps processors aren't so good at making consumer decisions either.

Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.