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Genetically Engineered Wheat

“Monsanto cannot control its GM Roundup Ready canola. GM canola has become a herbicide resistant ‘superweed’ on many farms, making weed control more difficult and costly. The introduction of herbicide resistant GM wheat and other crops will compound this agronomic problem for all farmers. Many farmers organic and conventional alike, don’t want runaway GM plants on their land”

Ian Cushon, Farmer [1]

What is GE wheat?

The genetically engineered (GE) wheat, also called genetically modified (GM) wheat, that is currently being tested for approval for production in Canada. It is a new variety of hard red spring wheat which has been genetically engineered to be tolerant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup®. Monsanto Canada Inc. requested the approval of GE wheat from Health Canada in July 2002 and for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in December 2002.[2]

Wheat production in Canada

Roundup Ready (RR) wheat would be available for western growers since in Canada, spring wheat is grown primarily in the central prairie or Great Plains area (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba). Spring wheat, which is planted in the spring and harvested in August or September, is the most popular variety of wheat and is primarily used in the production of flour to make bread dough. The milling of wheat also produces appreciable quantities of by-products for animal feed.

Pesticide Use

Industry claims that the introduction of GE wheat will lead to a reduction in herbicide use, a claim that has been made prior to the introduction of other herbicide tolerant (HT) crops such as RR soybeans, canola and corn. These claims have been contradicted by US government statistics that show that GE HT crops such as RR crops use more pesticides than conventional crops.[3] These state GE crops can receive as much as 30 percent more herbicide than non-GE crops.3 Not only do GE crops use more pesticides but they also force the farmer to purchase one single brand of herbicide, in this case Monsanto brand Roundup.


Other HT crops, such as canola and soybeans, have created new weed problems. Herbicides have begun to be less effective on weeds. Also, HT ‘volunteer plants’ or ‘superweeds’ are creating major problems. In the case of GE canola, the emergence of herbicide resistant superweeds has been detrimental to farmers. Farmers are resorting to applying several different and more toxic herbicides, in their attempts to eradicate these superweeds.

If introduced, GE wheat will enter farmers’ rotations along with the already HT canola and soybeans. This compounds the issue of superweeds as each crop sown would be HT, so any seed that fell from the crop before harvest would pose a threat of becoming an uncontrollable weed, or contained by using increasingly toxic herbicides. How can we believe that pesticide use will decrease with GE wheat?

Impacts on Trade

Seventy percent of Canadian wheat is exported and allowing GE wheat in Canada will mean the collapse of our export market and will cause financial ruin for many Canadian wheat farmers. According to the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) estimates, customers representing two-thirds of Canada’s wheat markets do not wish to purchase or receive GE wheat.[4] The CWB also designates Canadian and US domestic markets as opposed to GE wheat. The variety of hard spring wheat is primarily exported to the markets of the US, China, Indonesia and Iran.4 All of which have expressed rejection for this new GE product, excluding Iran who has made no comment.[5] This would have a major impact on the economy of Canada, as wheat is our leading agricultural export with $3 billion Canadian per year in revenue.[6]

Many organizations such as the Canadian grain industry working group on genetically modified wheat, have identified that there are many questions still to be answered about the impact of GE wheat on the economy as well as the environment. They have recognized that major customers have indicated they will not purchase wheat unless it is certified GE free, and that current methods of production would be unable to make the claim that any Canadian wheat was GE free.[7]

No More Seed Saving

Currently, wheat farmers enjoy the right to save their seed for replanting; an option that would be lost if GE wheat is allowed into the Canadian marketplace. This will lead to both a decrease in the quality of wheat and decreased farm profitability.

Farm profitability would be affected because farmers who use GE see are forbidden from saving seed and must instead buy new seeds every year. GE seeds cost 25-40 percent more than regular seed because of a ‘technology fee’ charged by biotechnology companies, yet once harvested GE crops sell for less in the market than conventional crops.[8] When added to increased chemical costs, potential yield declines and segregation costs, farmers are facing a serious economic risk from RR wheat, even without the expected loss of exports.

Non- GE wheat growers would also see a decrease in profitability. They would need to buy seed certified as GE-free to avoid contamination, and thus would be unable to use their own saved seed. Additional costs such as testing for seed contamination, renting machinery form farmers who do not use GE crops or washing rented machinery are also incurred by non-GE farmers in an attempt to avoid legal persecution for Monsanto for ‘illegal’ seed possession. Percy Schmeiser, a farmer from Saskatchewan was found guilty of growing RR canola without a licence even though the only source of the seed could be from contamination as he did not plant the GE crop. Thus far, the ordeal has cost him $600,000 (12). He takes his case to the Supreme Court in January of 2004.

For hundreds and hundreds of years farmers have saved seeds from plants with desirable traits and planted them the nest year. These practices have led to the gradual bettering of all crops around the world including the spring wheat crop. When GE crops are introduced the farmers must pay at least 25% more for seeds, must buy new seeds each year, and are forced to buy from the same seed company, predominantly Monsanto or Aventis. Much to the dismay of these companies, some farmers take the risk and save seed, and the companies have responded by creating ‘snitch’ phone lines and encourage farmers to tell on their neighbours. The control over seed saving not only stagnates the quality of wheat but the fabric of the rural community is torn apart.

“If farmers do not take a stand on limits to patenting and how biotechnology is used to alter seeds such as wheat; we risk losing our market access, loss of income, loss of choice, as well as losing control over what we produce, and how we produce it, what value it has, and who will buy it. This would also be an unacceptable situation for consumers who are ultimately the market for the product we produce.”

Marc Loiselle, a SOD director and organic farmer from Vonda, Saskatchewan. [12]

Farmers Response to GE Wheat

The National Farmer’s Union (NFU), Manitoba’s Keystone Agricultural Producer’s (KAP), the Agricultural Producer’s of Saskatchewan (APAS), the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM), and the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate (SOD) have all launched campaigns to act as a common voice of farmers against GE wheat. The NFU states that the top-ten reasons why they do not want GE wheat as: market loss, end of organic agriculture, lower prices for farmers, health concerns, environmental threats, agronomic costs, segregation won’t work, labelling, corporate control, and that finally, they don’t need it. They are suggesting to its members to boycott Monsanto’s products to send the corporation a message that they have control.[9]

Contamination to Non-GE Wheat

GE wheat can contaminate non-GE wheat in several ways. There is potential for contamination through:

  • Wind
  • Pollen movement and out crossing
  • Birds and animals
  • Trucking
  • Rented machinery
  • Grain elevators
  • Grain handling system*

The changes and costs required to create a 100 percent purity system are enormous. Numerous export customers have stated they would refuse wheat with any level of GE contamination. Even Monsanto has repeatedly acknowledged that it will be impossible to ensure 100 percent purity of non-GE wheat once RR wheat is commercialized.

The CWB recognizes that the current grain elevator system would be unable to segregate GE and non-GE wheat. Ken Ritter of the CWB states that, “Our elevator systems are saying they cannot segregate it to the level required by our customers. So, if we want to continue to be a major wheat exporter, registering RR wheat in Canada is a mistake.”[10]

This threat of contamination is enormously risky for organic farmers whose livelihoods depend on keeping the GM content of their foodstuffs at zero. The introduction of GE canola cause virtually every organic canola farmer in Saskatchewan to take it out of their crop rotations because they could not guarantee their crop had not been contaminated by the GE varieties. This loss represents a cost in excess of $14 million to organic farmers.[11] If GE wheat became widespread in the prairies organic farmers of the region would be driven out of producing wheat.

* The greatest contamination is likely to arise in the grain handling system. Neither the Canadian non the U.S. system is organized to enable the segregation of GE and non-GE wheat, and experts believe that major and expensive changes would be needed to accommodate GE wheat.

Government Testing

An access to information request filed in 2001, revealed that the Government of Canada was conducting open air trials of GE wheat in Manitoba. The research was funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Matched Investment Initiative (MII) program. MII allows biotechnology firms to invest half of the research costs of a project while the federal government supplies that other half, as well as the expertise of its civil service and the land to complete the trial.


As with other biotechnology developments, industry has promised farmers increased yields of crop and lower pesticide usage. However, if GE wheat is to be like other genetically modified, roundup-ready crops, there will be reduced yields, increased dependence on pesticide products and problems associated with roundup resistant superweeds.

How to Protect Canadian Farmers and Stop GE Wheat

  • Write a letter to your MP (no postage necessary), to the Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Health and to the Prime Minister about this extremely important issue

  • Sign Sierra Club Canada’s petition requesting that parliament immediately institute a ban on the environmental and commercial release of GE wheat

  • Choose not to buy GE products – Organic is GE free

  • Don’t invest in biotechnology. If you have ethical investments, ask your financial planner if these include biotech shares, and if so, opt out.



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