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Biotech wheat - the market decides

13.may.04, Brenda Cassidy, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

Adding market acceptability standards to the approval process for new crops would force regulators to choose technological winners and losers, making subjective value judgments for which they are ill-equipped.

13.may.04, Brenda Cassidy, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
Anti-biotech crusaders are touting it as an enormous victory for their cause. The developer says it's purely a business decision. But Monsanto's announcement this week that the company will discontinue breeding and field level research of Roundup Ready (RR) wheat may provide a welcome respite from increasing calls for the inclusion of non-science issues into Canada's food safety regulatory system.
Because of concerns about the potential impact of genetically engineered (GE) wheat on export markets, marketing agencies and farm groups campaigned to include social considerations - such as market acceptability - into the regulatory process, arguing that the new technology should not receive approval without confirmation that markets for existing crops could be maintained and buyers for the new crop could be guaranteed.
Sounds simple. Except that market acceptance is one of those fuzzy terms that seems rational but is really nothing more than an extensive make-work project for bureaucrats. Currently, regulators must conduct extensive health and environmental safety assessments of all new food crops before they can be grown commercially or sold as food. The criteria are evidence-based.
Adding market acceptability standards to the approval process for new crops would force regulators to choose technological winners and losers, making subjective value judgments for which they are ill-equipped. Political influence could play a significant role in deciding which products reached the market and which remained undeveloped, despite the fact that significant demand for such products may exist, either now or in the future. And Canada's ability to argue for fair market access grounded on science-based criteria would be lost.
Tell that to Canada's cattle farmers, who have struggled for the past year to survive the effects of market closures resulting from the discovery of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in western Canada. On their behalf, our politicians have argued that, based on the science, export markets must be re-opened to Canadian beef.
If Canada was to withhold regulatory approval of a new crop on the grounds of market preference for products that could be demonstrated as safe for health and the environment, we could make no higher demand of our customers in international markets. Canada can't have it both ways. There are other mechanisms to determine the desirability of new technologies. And that's exactly what happened in the case of RR wheat. With declining
spring wheat acreage across North America and the availability of effective weed control options for most conventional varieties, few farmers cited in public documents could see substantive benefits in adopting the new wheat variety. And with a limited potential market for the product, developers made a decision to put their resources behind projects that promise greater success. That's just good business. Is it a defeat for GE technology in food crops? Not likely: a GE wheat that is resistant to fusarium, a disease that damages crops and produces dangerous toxins, is currently in development. Other targeted needs for wheat, according to industry representatives, are varieties that demonstrate drought tolerance,
better quality attributes and reduced allergies. If genetic engineering can be used to develop varieties that address these key production and market needs, there is no reason to believe that they will not achieve the same success as other GE crops in Canada and around the world. Their success will be based on the benefits they offer, not on the technology by which they were produced.
According to a report released in January by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), global adoption rates for GE crops continued to grow in 2003, with a total planted acreage last year of 67.7 million hectares (167.2 million acres), up 15 per cent from 2002.
Canada's GE crop acreage, at 4.4 million hectares (10.9 million acres), was up 26 per cent from the previous year, reflecting higher plantings of GE canola and significant growth in the adoption of GE varieties of both corn and soybeans.
If the technology works, providing answers to production and market needs, farmers will use it. But assuming that the safety of new products can be clearly established, it is not the role of Canada's regulatory officials to decide whether they can or should be used.
That's for the markets - or elected representatives of the people - to decide.

Brenda Cassidy is research assistant with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.