October 28, 1999
The president of the Canadian Wheat Board has, according to this story, called for a moratorium on the registration of transgenic crop varieties until the Canadian system is able to segregate them or they receive full market acceptance.
"In our view, no transgenic varieties should be registered for commercial production in Canada until either they have achieved full commercial acceptance in all of their potential markets or until we have cost-effective technologies to segregate by variety throughout the system," Greg Arason told senior grain industry executives in a closed meeting last week.
In the special meeting called by the board and the Canada Grains Council, Arason highlighted several critical issues surrounding the implementation of biotech crops for the grain handling and transportation industry in Canada. The text of his remarks that was released after the meeting paints a good news/bad news scenario for Canadian cereal producers. He also expresses a large measure of discomfort with the marketing approach taken by major life sciences companies.
"The position of one of the largest life sciences companies is to make all crops transgenic and then people would have to consume them because they will have no choice," he said. "The CWB does not accept this approach." Arason said while the board wants farmers on the Canadian Prairies to have access to the best agronomic technology available, that must be balanced against maintaining their ability to market into all premium markets. A survey of Canada's customers for wheat and barley on biotechnology issues has found that much of Canada's customer base, located in more than 70 countries, is unwilling to accept transgenic crops at this time.
The concerns could affect Canada's ability to sell wheat, durum and malting barley throughout the world. "If the only major premium market that is left to sell transgenic wheat into is the United States, will that be enough? Even if we can sell them wheat, the indications are that the malting industry will not accept transgenic malting barley anywhere except China." He said the industry must address who is responsible for assuring customers get what they ask for and who pays the bill if they don't.
"There is no room for the slippage that is currently experienced in malting barley programs," he said, referring to tolerances that allow up to five per cent non-malt varieties in a shipment.
Arason said the marketplace reality means that a foolproof segregation system must be in place before transgenic cereal varieties come to market. Yet the necessary technology for identifying such crops remains illusive. "We need to develop on a high-priority basis new technologies to segregate grain varieties," he said. "These Rapid Instrumental Objective Testing or RIOT technologies, will allow us to evolve the wheat quality control system beyond its current reliance on visual distinguishability."
If Canada can deliver those assurances there are some increased market opportunities, such as a move by at least one major Japanese miller towards replacing cornstarch with wheat starch to get away from transgenic ingredients.
Aside from shutting Canadian commodities out of countries that don't want biotechnology, the rapid adoption of the new science by others could reduce overall demand for Canadian imports. He said the board's market analysis and weather and crop surveillance units are attempting to assess how the commercialization of various agronomic traits could affect Canada's current customer base.
For example, China is embracing biotechnology as a tool to help feed its domestic demand and lessening its dependence on imports. Argentina is also implementing transgenics and is targeting countries such as Egypt and Iran as customers. If North African countries are able to achieve drought tolerance in their durum production, purchases from Canada will be reduced. "Incorporating frost and salinity tolerance, fusarium and midge tolerance, drought and sprouting tolerance or any combination of these traits will have a dramatic effect on who our competition is, and where markets are, as early as 10 years from now," Arason said. "Are we making decisions today that recognize these trends or are we going to miss the market? Prairie farmers can't afford for the industry to miss a step of this magnitude." Arason said the board is also worried about whether the Canadian varietal registration system is adequately equipped to deal with new varieties which are not yet accepted by the marketplace. "The CWB is a strong believer that when it comes to marketing food ingredients the customer is always right, even when they might be scientifically wrong," he said. If consumers aren't comfortable with the products of biotechnology, for whatever reason, they will not buy them. "This is a bottom line that must be recognized."
Yet the current varietal registration system in Canada has no mechanism for refusing to register a variety which meets the scientific criteria. Once registered, it can be freely grown. "Should our Canadian variety registration system, a system which has generated world-class quality products, be allowed to register a transgenic variety for which there is little or no market demand and which could cause harm to our reputation and/or significant logistical problems for other products?" But Arason also said Canada's disciplined approach to varietal registration and an ongoing commitment to strict quality control are tools which will continue to give Canada a marketing advantage over its competitors.
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Last Updated on 10/28/99
By Karen Lutz