Picture a boxing ring. In one corner is Monsanto, a corporate giant, the biggest in the agricultural biotechnology sector. In the other corner are farmers, organic growers, environmentalists, activists and consumers.
Until this week, it wasn’t even a sparring match. According to Monsanto; it was just a case of the opposition engaging in shadow-boxing. But suddenly, not only is there a boxing match, it looks like the stage has been set for the gloves to come off.
Round one took place in the late 1990s-early 2000s. The issue? Genetically engineered (GE) wheat. While Monsanto had invested almost $5 million in developing Roundup-ready wheat, “Roundup-ready wheat does not exist,” said Monsanto Canada spokeswoman, Trish Jordan by telephone yesterday.
Yes, Monsanto was working on the wheat product. Yes, Monsanto had applied to North American governments for permission to commercialize the GE wheat. Yes, Monsanto decided to pull out of the Roundup-ready spring wheat because of a “lack of industry alignment.”
What Jordan omitted to say, however, was that not only was Monsanto facing widespread opposition to the wheat from farmers and consumers, AgCanada pulled its funding of the GE wheat in 2004, further influencing Monsanto's decision to drop the project.
The “lack of alignment” cited by Jordan disappeared in May 2009 when a consortium of wheat producers from Canada, the United States and Australia issued a statement to the public stating that they were working on the:
“synchronized commercialization of biotech traits in the wheat crop.”
With this encouragement, Monsanto just spent $45 million on its purchase of an U.S.-based wheat research and development company, Westbred, and has announced plans to proceed with the development of a GE wheat product. Until this week, Monsanto has been conspicuously absent from the GE wheat debate.
The future GE wheat “will not be Roundup ready, said Jordan. “It will have increased drought tolerance, increased yield and improved nitrogen efficiency.” The initial focus, Jordan said, would be on the “traditional” enhancement of wheat, such as inserting molecular markers. She added that it would take from eight to ten years before Monsanto had a product that was ready for the market.
While some wheat producers like the proposed features of the GE wheat touted by Monsanto, that’s not enough just yet for Canadian wheat producers, says the Canadian Wheat Board. The Board opposed Monsanto’s Roundup ready wheat in 2004, and it still has reservations about GE wheat.
Their primary concern is the potential loss of market share caused by opposition of consumers and the European Union (EU) to GE wheat. Wheat producers also want to see more benefits from the GE wheat. However, because the EU just lifted a six-year old ban against Canadian GE canola, there is some hope that future bans of GE foods might be prevented.
Stockwell Day, Canada’s Trade Minister, was quoted as having said the lifting of the ban was
“...positive news for Canadian producers of all agricultural genetically modified organism products.”
The lifting of the ban on GE canola does seem to promise a brighter potential for GE wheat.
Reached yesterday through Skype, Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), the non-profit organization spearheading a global rejection to GE wheat said that there is no action the Canadian government can take right now because Monsanto has not submitted an application for the commercial use of GE wheat.
However, Sharratt said that CBAN would continue to pursue the global rejection of GE wheat with the goal to “close down the debate before it continues.”
Too late, as it turns out that round two of the GE wheat fight is well underway.
Wind ruffling through wheat
When asked what Monsanto’s position is regarding the opposition to GE wheat, spokeswoman Jordan said that there was no official position, because there is no GE wheat product.
“People are entitled to their opinion,” she added.“ I don’t think their opposition is based on rational thought or legitimate concern. It is not a food safety concern.”
Reaction in Australia to the wheat consortium’s commitment to have GE wheat available to farmers was much stronger. The Tasmanian Times reported a spokesperson for the Network of Concerned Farmers as saying they were “horrified” that some farmers want to grow GM wheat. The Network said, ”... the introduction of GM wheat is nothing short of sabotage.”
While the safety of GE wheat can only be assessed in the future, there are substantial concerns about the safety of Monsanto’s other products. There are years of controversy surrounding Monsanto, from Agent Orange (used in Vietnam) to Bovine Growth Hormone.
The safety of Roundup is one issue. Monsanto claims Roundup is safe and environmentally friendly. Roundup uses an ingredient called Glyphosate. In Glyphosate Formulations Induce Apoptosis and Necrosis in Human Umbilical, Embryonic, and Placental Cells, a study published at the end of 2008, scientists found that Roundup causes embryonic kidney cell death, and the death of placental cells.
Another recently published study, How Subchronic and Chronic Health Effects can be Neglected for GMOs, Pesticides or Chemicals, is a collaboration between eight scientists from five different countries that found that the testing of one of Monsanto’s products, MON 863 maize did not receive sufficient testing to be able to ascertain the safety of the product.
Other concerns involve the inability of farmers to save seed for the next growing season. Monsanto regularly sues its customers for this practice, which is not permitted with genetically engineered seed stock. Once Monsanto has engineered a seed, it applies for a patent and thus becomes the exclusive owner of the product.
Monsanto has a commitment to “... apply innovation and technology to help farmers around the world produce more while conserving more .. so they can be successful, produce healthier foods, better animal feeds and more fiber, while also reducing agriculture's impact on our environment,” Monsanto dominates the agricultural biotechnology industry owning about 90 per cent of all GE seed patents, according to CBAN’s Sharratt. The seed market is indeed profitable for Monsanto, which saw net profits of $694 million during the first quarter of 2009.