The roadblock to rolling out genetically modified wheat isn’t consumer resistance in Europe or Japan. It’s ambivalence among Canadian farmers, according to Monsanto Canada president Derek Penner.
“My attitude is there hasn’t been much shift towards GMO wheat (in Canada),” Penner told reporters Nov. 23 at the opening of Monsanto’s new Canada Breeding Centre at the University of Manitoba.
“I think we’ve proven in our industry today the lack of biotech acceptance isn’t an impairment to moving forward biotech in other countries around the world.”
Penner suggested the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) is an impediment too.
“We’re sitting still with a coalition government right now, we still have the Canadian Wheat Board, so it’s still a difficult situation and as a company we need to prioritize how we spend our research and development dollars,” he said.
The key question is “what do farmers want, what are they looking for,” said Trish Jordan, Monsanto Canada’s public affairs director.
“When we hear that farmers are looking for investment into wheat and there is a broader industry consensus, then it’s something we can look at it,” she said.
The CWB says it’s not opposed to biotechnology but doesn’t want GM wheat grown commercially in Canada before there’s widespread acceptance by customers.
In 2004, the CWB and a coalition of farm groups, including Keystone Agricultural Producers, lobbied hard against GM wheat, arguing it could result in lost markets. At the time, 87 per cent of the CWB’s customers said they didn’t want it.
There are agronomic concerns too.
University of Manitoba weed scientist Rene Van Acker estimates it would cost farmers an extra $6 to $16 an acre annually in herbicides to control volunteer Roundup Ready wheat – an additional $150 million to $300 million across the Prairies.
Monsanto shelved its GM wheat but has since resumed research in the United States and Australia. The focus is mainly on improving its wheat germplasm, Jordan said.
“We would be receptive at looking at Canada (for GM wheat) but I think we’d need some push or consensus, I guess,” she said in a later interview. “We’d be happy to set up something if something materializes but right now it hasn’t. So I think the focus is on the U.S.”
Wheat is a less profitable crop to grow, according to Jordan, because it lacks private company investment. Companies won’t invest if they can’t make improvements through genetic modification.
There’s also a concern about getting a return on investment, she said.
A high percentage of farmers only buy new wheat seed occasionally. To get a return, Monsanto would have to get farmers to sign technical use agreements agreeing not to save seed, Jordan said.
Another option would be to collect a royalty when farmers sold their wheat, which is done in Australia, she said.