Will the private sector bow out of crop research if Bill C-474 becomes law?
Some industry and farm organizations fear that result from NDP MP Alex Atamanenko’s private member’s bill to require a market impact assessment before new technology is approved.
If private companies pull out, or even cut back on research, it would be a blow to Canadian farmers, especially those growing canola, soybeans and corn – crops lacking in publicly funded research.
C-474, now before the House of Commons’ agriculture committee, would prevent farmers from losing important markets and profits when a major importer hasn’t approved a new GM event, Atamanenko says.
But GM developers say they already take market impact into account and including socioeconomic considerations, in a “science-based” regulatory system creates uncertainty that will discourage research.
“You wouldn’t have canola in Canada if 474 went through,” JoAnne Buth, president of the Canola Council of Canada told the Canada Grains Council’s 41st annual meeting in Winnipeg April 19.
“If we moved away from science-based (regulation) and put a socioeconomic evaluation in there they (GM developers) would walk away from canola.”
Atamanenko and C-474 supporters accuse GM developers and industry organizations of overreacting and even scaremongering to prevent legislation that might interfere with profits.
It’s not a bluff, says Lorne Hepworth, president of CropLife Canada, which represents the major biotech and pesticide companies.
“At a minimum you’re going to see a delay in the technology and you might see an outright failure for them to come to market here because they don’t know what it is that they have to do and no certainty if they introduce it they’d get it through the regulatory system,” he said in an interview.
But GM developers were more ambiguous when asked directly.
In separate interviews, officials with BASF, Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred (a DuPont Company), Bayer CropScience and Monsanto said a law like C-474 would make the commercialization of new GM crops less certain, and uncertainty discourages investment.
Impossible to predict
But most said it’s impossible to predict whether the law, which has yet to be fleshed out, would be so draconian as to drive them out of GM research in Canada.
“I’d would be surprised if anyone said they are going to stop their canola research because of this,” said Don MacKenzie, Pioneer Hi-Bred’s manager, of biotechnology and industry affairs. “It’s a bit premature at this stage.
“Until we have a better sense about what that might look like it’s hard to know exactly what the impacts would be. It certainly has the potential to make the system much less predictable.”
Bayer CropScience said it is committed to the Canadian market.
“We’re not going to pack up and go home because we just finished pretty significant capital investments in Western Canada in the canola industry,” said Paul Thiel, Bayer CropScience’s vice-president of innovation and public affairs.
Over the last 10 years, the firm has spent $40 million in Canada, including building a global canola research facility in Saskatoon.
But that’s not to say Bayer Crop-Science sees C-474 as innocuous.
“Would it make us take a greater degree of consideration (in our investment in Canada)? Absolutely it will,” Thiel said.
Bayer CropScience and all of the other GM firms develop and sell crops around the world. Researchers compete internally for investment, which flows to where managers believe they can earn the best return, Thiel said.
When a company looks at investing $100 million and 10 years of work to develop and commercialize a new GM crop it wants to know what regulatory hoops it has to jump through, said Trish Jordan, Monsanto Canada’s manager of public and industry affairs.
“Having a science-based regulatory system is an absolute requirement for Monsanto to be able to invest and function effectively in a country,” she said.
Canola could suffer the most because Canada is the dominant player, said Brian Denys, BASF’s business director for crop protection. Companies will continue to work on soybeans and corn in other countries and traits developed there might eventually find their way to Canada.
Canada has long advocated a science-based regulatory system for GM crops and led by example, said Judy Shaw, Syngenta Crop Protection Canada’s government affairs director. Passing C-474 would be a backwards step, she said.
According to Hepworth, the real agenda behind Bill C-474 is blocking all new GM crops in Canada – an allegation Atamanenko denies.
Hepworth wants Atamanenko and C-474 supporters to declare on the record whether they favour biotechnology or not.
“People need to be called on this stuff,” he said. “Come clean with your farmer audience, come clean with the public.”