GM crops: the voice of Canadian farmers

Lyle Wright Wayne Amos Stewart Wells
23 July 2003

Lyle and Carol Wright farm near Kerrobert, Saskatchewan. Lyle and Carol grow several types of wheat as well as flax, mustard, lentils, chickpeas, forage, grass seed, barley, rye, oats, and chickling vetch. Some of the production is conventional, some is pedigreed seed, and some is organic.

Lyle has a degree from the University of Saskatchewan and he worked for a few years at Agriculture Canada at its research Station at Swift Current, Saskatchewan. He represents the NFU on committees of the Canadian Grain Commission which sets standards for Canadian wheat and other grains.

Stewart Wells has been President of Canada’s National Farmers Union since 2001. He was born and raised on a third-generation family farm near Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Canada, and studied Agricultural Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. A delegate to the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool – a farmer-owned grain collection co-operative – in the early 1990s, he is currently serving on Canada’s Agriculture Trade Negotiations Consultations Group. He has also served on the Board of the NFU’s Farmer-to-Farmer Trade Project – designed to foster trade links between Canadian and Mexican farm organisations and farmers.

Stewart and his wife operate a 3,500 acre (1,400 Hectare) organic farm where they grow a wide variety of grains, pulse crops, and oilseeds.

Wayne Amos operates Big Dog Farm, a conventional grain farm near Oxbow, Saskatchewan. He farms 3400 acres (1350 hectares) – part owned and part rented – and raises winter wheat, spring wheat, flax, canola (oilseed rape), sunflowers, lentils, green and yellow peas, pintos and black beans, chickling vetch, native grass seed, caraway and coriander. He uses direct seeding (“direct drilling”). In addition to commercial crops, about 70% of his farm is devoted to pedigreed seed production. He is also a Select seed grower.

Wayne has worked with farmers in El Salvador to establish a chile pepper processing cooperative. He worked to help set up the Canadian Caribbean Agricultural Exchange programme. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Food Grains Bank. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Saskatchewan and has worked as a school teacher in rural Saskatchewan.


The province of Saskatchewan is located in the centre of western Canada’s prairie grain growing region. With about 36 million acres (14 million hectares) of land in crops, and over 65 million acres (30 million hectares) of farmland, Saskatchewan has nearly 40 of Canada’s farmland. Major Saskatchewan crops include wheat, barley, canola, flax, oats, and peas. Saskatchewan farmers produce cattle and hogs. Relatively low rainfall amounts make agriculture challenging.

Saskatchewan has a population of about 1 million. Its capital is Regina. Saskatchewan is one of ten provinces and three territories in the Canadian federal system.

openDemocracy: During your visit to Europe, what is the message you intend giving to British and European farmers?

Stewart Wells: They should count the hidden costs connected with biotechnology and the current generation of GM crops.

The biotech companies tell us that, ‘GM technology can feed the hungry world.’ But there is plenty of grain already, GM crops won’t change anything. Global hunger is the result of faulty distribution, not deficient production. Solving infrastructure problems takes a different kind of political will from introducing GM crops.

openDemocracy: Which hidden costs are most worrying?

Stewart Wells: The environmental costs are very significant but difficult to quantify. For example, the necessary segregation and monitoring of GM crops cannot even be achieved. Nor can the question of liability be settled in the event of contamination. In almost all the cases that I am aware of, the biotech industry refuses to pay for liability costs, and refuses to pay for damage caused. They take the profits because they own the patent rights; the costs are all externalised, with taxpayers and future generations footing the bill.

This interview was carried out on 9 July 2003 in London with Sophie Jeffreys, editor of the Ecology & Place theme and Caspar Henderson, editor of the Globalisation theme, of openDemocracy.

openDemocracy: Can you tell us more about the threat to biodiversity and the environment?

Stewart Wells: Promoters of GM crops are continually saying that farmers can use fewer pesticides. But does it matter whether it’s the farmer who is applying pesticide and herbicide to the land, or whether it is the actual crop applying the pesticide to the land? In the first generation of Bt corn the entire corn plant is manufacturing the toxin and the residues are staying in the soil. This must affect the organisms that live in the soil in a way that will not ultimately be sustainable.

There are no scientific analyses about what is going on at this level. When enormous amounts of Bt are left in the soil, who can claim that fewer toxins are being used?

Lyle Wright: Furthermore, at a more obvious level the GM crop presents a perennial biological nuisance. The crop itself becomes a weed.

Let me clarify what we are talking about in terms of GM modification: Herbicide resistance. Companies have identified a gene that will make the farmed crop resistant to their herbicide, in Monsanto’s case it’s the produce Roundup Ready seed platform.

Farmers now use Roundup to clear their fields of weeds prior to planting the seasonal crop, rather than till the land, and this helps to preserve topsoil. Well, we now have Roundup Ready canola that we can’t control out there. Once we have Roundup Ready wheat it will be another problem. Of course we are finding ways to control Roundup Ready canola using other herbicides. But this will not be possible with wheat. Already we have canola plants in Western Canada that are resistant to all three main herbicides.

openDemocracy: Have any of you had experience in using the Roundup Ready canola?

Wayne Amos: Yes I have. It has been fairly widely adopted in Western Canada since it was introduced in 1996. Farmers saw it as a way to simplify production of canola, which had previously required herbicide and pesticide to be incorporated into the soil by tilling prior to planting. But having grown Roundup Ready canola I, like a lot of other people, am now having second thoughts about the long-term economics. Yields are not higher, the seed is expensive and the problem with controlling volunteers up to 5 years later with additional herbicides and labour makes us question the technology. I think this is why there is so much opposition to GM wheat.

A question of ownership

openDemocracy: What do you hope to achieve through the Canadian Wheat Board’s call for a moratorium on Roundup Ready Wheat?

Stewart Wells: The Canadian Wheat Board is a farmer-funded single desk seller, it has a legislated authority to be the sole exporter of wheat and barley from western Canada. Today they are publishing the results of a study they commissioned from plant scientists at the University of Manitoba in which scientists, Dr. Rene Van Acker, Dr. Anita Brûlé-Babel and Lyle Friesen say: ‘The unconfined release of Roundup Ready wheat will negatively affect the environment and limit farmers’ ability to conserve natural resources on farms in Western Canada. Under current conditions the release of Roundup Ready wheat in Western Canada would be environmentally unsafe.’

The Canadian Wheat Board is therefore calling for a stop to the uncontrolled release of Roundup Ready wheat requesting:

  • either that Monsanto voluntarily withdraw its application for approval of Roundup Ready wheat from the federal government
  • or, that the federal government bring in criteria and mechanisms whereby it can deny the registration of Roundup Ready wheat.
This claim is very specific: it concerns this single product, for a variety of reasons.

Monsanto have responded with a letter, in late June 2003, in which they say they will not withdraw their application. They have been resisting all public and organisational pressure. The Government for its part, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is the one that will take the decision and they do not publish time lines on their deliberations, so they may come down with a decision next month or by the end of this year, or in two or three years time, no one knows.

Lyle Wright: What is more the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is part of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada which is charged with developing new seed technologies at the research stations across Canada. It is the research centre in Winnipeg that has the contract to produce Roundup Ready wheat, so you have got a government department that has a contract to develop the seed and a government department that is charged with regulating it – in other words, a potential conflict. Also, CFIA has insisted that there is no way that the economics of the market place can be used to decide whether a variety can be registered, because they claim that the market will sort this out – if it’s not a good marketing idea, people won’t grow it. Which makes some sense except when you have a brand new plant, which once released is irretrievable.

Stewart Wells: The line from the companies has always been ‘genes won’t transfer through pollen...’ and then when its shown to happen, they say ‘well we always knew it would happen, but it won’t really be a problem’ and that’s where we are with this gene stacking now.

openDemocracy: Wayne, you want to stop using GM canola, Lyle was saying the situation is irretrievable. What way back do you see?

Wayne Amos: On the fields on which I have grown GM canola, over the course of several years we can get those volunteers controlled. But that represents a huge cost to us, and no cost at all to Monsanto.

Lyle Wright: When you sign the technology lease agreement with Monsanto you are agreeing to a three-year audit. Monsanto can access to your land and buildings for three years to ensure you are not saving seed for your own use. You have to buy the seed each year, and you have to pay your $15 per acre for the technology use agreement (TUA). Nothing can be saved, the entire crop must go to the crushers.

openDemocracy: Has it not always been the case that professional farmers buy new seed each year?

Goodness no, it’s really a new development in the area of canola. Nor is it specific to GM crops. The government brought in legislation in Canada several years ago called ‘Plant Breeders Rights’. This gave companies more control over seed varieties they had developed or somehow acquired rights to. Contracts would include stipulations forcing the farmer to deliver all the seed back to the company each year, so requiring him to buy it anew the following. Nevertheless, approximately 70% of the wheat that’s seeded in western Canada is farmer-saved seed. The industry is trying to force farmers down the path of seed patents. This is certainly not an advance and it’s certainly not what farmers would like to do if they could choose.

openDemocracy: Have you talked about the introduction of GM with farmers in Latin America and what are their reactions?

Stewart Wells: I have worked with an organisation of Mexican farmers, three years ago now. We mentioned the idea of GM to coffee growers in the mountains north of Acapulco; at that time they really hadn’t heard much about the technology. We explained the idea of patenting different plants. These people propagate their own strains and varieties of coffee. They were shocked and outraged when they heard that a company could take out a patent and own the plants growing around them. To anybody who has grown up outside the world of the stock market this is an entirely foreign concept. To such people the idea that life can be patented is outrageous.

Look at it this way: a plant will have thousands of genes; but in manipulating one of them you end up with ownership of the whole plant – is that ethical?

Wayne Amos: I have worked with people in the eastern Caribbean, Grenada, St Vincent, Domenica, St Lucia and then all through Central America, primarily in El Salvador and also to a lesser extent in Mexico. The issue for them is the same as for us, namely control – control of the seed industry, and also control of our own livelihoods.

The hidden costs of GM

openDemocracy: On his visit to Africa in July 2003, President Bush accused European countries of being complicit in famine and hunger in Africa because of EU resistance to GM crops. What do you make of the claim that GM can solve hunger?

Lyle Wright: Global hunger doesn’t have anything to do with genetic modification or the rejection of it, it has everything to do with people’s will to share and distribute. Suppose the world will have access to GM food: what makes you think that this food will be available to the people who need it?

Stewart Wells: The promoters of biotechnology have an endless list of good news stories that are just around the corner. When it turns out that one doesn’t work out that way they pedal another one. Feeding the hungry world is a powerful slogan; but that is all it is. After all, when farmers ask governments, anywhere in the world, why grain prices are so low, the answer is always that there is over-supply. So why is the world hungry? The problem is clearly one of distribution, which means that biotechnology is not a solution but a diversion.

openDemocracy: Who would you look to for reliable information on scientific developments and GM technology development? Do you ask the government, scientists, or media?

Stewart Wells: That’s a tough question. In Canada, the NFU and others, such as the Royal Society of Canada, have been very critical of the conflict of interest within the government of Canada. Governmental departments are both regulating and promoting products of biotechnology.

It is important for farmers to understand that the adoption of GM crops doesn’t affect just the farmers who want to grow them. It affects all farmers. Farmers who have no intention of growing GM crops should not just turn their back on this and say ‘this is not going to affect me’. Scientific studies show that farmers who don’t adopt GM crops are affected as much or more because of the increased agronomic cost, the increased spraying cost, increased pesticide use and so on.

There are currently no testing facilities that are accessible. Research facilities are few and far between and expensive to use. Also it takes considerable research to spot the GM gene and the corporations are doing everything they can to prevent independent testing.

For instance, when you buy GM seed, some contracts stipulate that ‘you will use your best efforts to prevent the seed falling into the hands of a third party’. The farmers assume this means that they will not knowingly give the seed free to their neighbour. The corporations are using legal speak to make it unlawful for farmers to make their seed available to researchers for independent testing.

I believe that in the UK there has been a discussion about forcing the GM companies to introduce an identical identifying DNA in all GM crops which will simplify the testing and trigger clear labelling that stays with the product all the way from grain to wrapper. This is a good idea.

Who controls the food supply?

openDemocracy: How would you envisage a GM-free future and what is the future of organic farming?

Stewart Wells: My farm is organic. There is no doubt that GM crops will have a devastating affect on organic farming. I recently had to stop growing canola since I wouldn’t be able to guarantee that it would not be contaminated. There is no certifying body in the world that will allow any contamination with GM material. As long as there are some regions in the world that can offer assurance that there is no GM product there, those organic farmers will do nicely. Organic farmers that can’t make that guarantee will become the residual suppliers and will eventually be dropped off the list. For instance, in Canada the widespread adoption of GM wheat may well force Canadian organic farmers out of the market. Wheat is hugely important to all rotation farmers. It will always be grown at some point.

An island has a tremendous advantage when it comes to deciding what kind of crops are going to be grown in the country. You could actually stop GM crops from being grown here in the UK, so as to become a guaranteed supplier of non-GM seeds. If this policy were followed, it could become hugely profitable very quickly.

openDemocracy: Why are we seeing governments acting against market forces? The consumer is seeking organic, while governments are promoting GM.

Stewart Wells: We are talking to government leaders saying, ‘we are growing what the consumer wants, the consumer’s always right, but you are telling us now that we have to adopt, or grow side by side with a genetically modified crop that is going to put us out of business’. And they really get angry.

Wayne Amos: Were GM wheat to be introduced into Canada, it would not only affect organic farmers but our export customers. Fully 85% have said they don’t want GM wheat, so it would affect the whole business. A number of your bakeries here in Britain, which source wheat in Canada say ‘were GM wheat to be introduced, we would no longer purchase wheat from Canada’.

This is where we begin to see the effect of the conflict of interest at the heart of our government’s policy-making.

openDemocracy: In what ways can farmers put pressure on Monsanto?

Stewart Wells: In February 2003 the NFU asked farmers to switch their purchases of seed and chemical away from Monsanto, because even among the farmers in America who have grown GM canola, there is a tremendous groundswell against the introduction of Roundup Ready wheat. We called this a ‘Commercial Communications Strategy’, but we can only gather anecdotal evidence that it is working in the countryside of Canada.

But because Monsanto is a multinational company, if these actions only take place in isolated areas like Canada, that in itself will not be enough to convince them to drop the concept. The message would have to get through to the shareholders of Monsanto that their share value would actually drop and not be enhanced by the introduction of GM wheat, that is the only way to apply pressure to Monsanto.

Wayne Amos: So far Monsanto is avoiding any liability for the adverse effects of using GM crops. I particularly want to see the issue of liability addressed in the instance when GM undermines organic farmers, or prohibits the export to wheat to Europe. Who should be responsible? If the corporations avoid responsibility then the costs will fall to the taxpayer. I feel that the patent holders should be responsible.

openDemocracy: This brings us to the central question of the power of corporations being greater than that of individual countries.

Stewart Wells: If you go into a room, a public meeting of urban people or of farmers, and say: will everyone put up their hands who wants the control of the food supply system in the hands of three multinational companies, raise your hands high! – who is going to put up their hands? But by people sitting back and trying not to get involved and hoping the whole problem goes away they are in fact facilitating that very event. This is about control of the food supply system.

Two recent patents, one here in Europe and one in the US, illustrate the problem. One patent concerns the genetic modification of soy beans and the method that’s used to do that – Monsanto has won that particular case so that now they control all GM soy beans produced under this patent granted by the European patents office: it sounds outrageous, but its true.

The other patent concerns yellow beans coming from Mexico. Larry Proctor has been granted a patent on all yellow beans, because he took yellow beans from Mexico and selected for a deeper yellow colour. His patent was apparently granted on all shades of yellow bean even though there are other genetically identical yellow beans already growing in South America.

Patents were originally granted to people who came up with new inventions. Now they are granted to people who make discoveries. It is as though Columbus could patent North America.

openDemocracy:What do you think it will take for people to sit up and take notice about control of the food chain?

Lyle Wright: It seems to me that people don’t really understand the problem until it effects them directly and then it’s two years too late and they’re faced with a real disaster. That’s one of the things that keeps me involved with a farm organization, trying to raise public awareness, trying to get the issues out in front of people so they can make their own decisions about how they want things to unfold, before it is too late.

Consumers and farmers

openDemocracy Would you agree that there is a certain lack of sympathy for farmers, who are seen to receive large subsidies and grow food with heavy use of chemicals? Do you think your stance against GM food will enhance the reputation of farmers, as a group that can be trusted to provide safe, healthy food?

Stewart Wells: I hope so. But it is right that people should question what they hear from organisations and groups. We want people to question us (the NFU) so that they can be sure we are being straightforward and honest with them.

After all, there are lots of so-called farm organisations that just become shields for the agribusiness companies. They accept money from them and sponsorship from them and they end up saying what those companies would want them to say. In our own case I think the NFU has done a tremendous job (of course I would say that) in bringing together farmers and so-called ‘civil society’ organisations.

There’s something called the Council of Canadians – a voluntary membership organisation, not focussed on agriculture – with which we work.

On many occasions agribusiness organisations say to us that we shouldn’t be working with the Council of Canadians because all they do is work against the interest of farmers. They’ll throw out a statement like that, never trying to back it up, but in farm country it’s the way to cause a split: divide and conquer. Split the farmers away from urban Canadians and taxpayers.

When the urban consumer in Canada complains that ‘all those farmers are just after government subsidies’ we can look them square in the eye and say: ‘Who is it that’s being subsidised in Canada? Is it the farmers, that are going broke by the thousand, or the consumers, who by 9 January of each year, which we call Food Freedom Day, have on average made enough money through their wages to pay for all their food for the rest of the year at farm gate prices?

The global trade regime

openDemocracy: What are your feelings about the global trade rule environment. You seem to be saying that it is right for countries to have their own policies and strategies?

Stewart Wells: I would say that global trade rules aren’t working particularly well, while the US on the one hand is promoting free trade, they are very belligerent in terms of ensuring that trade is more particularly in their favour.

The Farmers Union in Canada has a policy that agriculture should not be part of WTO negotiations, food is too important to be treated as another widget. The rules that apply to steel production should not apply to food production because food is just too important to our countries. The Canadian government does not agree with that.

Now with twenty years experience of the Canada US Trade Agreement, the North American Free Trade Agreement and now the WTO, it’s very clear that these agreements are not helping Canadian farmers. The vast benefits are accruing somewhere else in the food chain. There’s never been so much money in the food supply system, there’s never been so little of that money getting to farmers and so that’s our official position.

A world for agribusiness

openDemocracy: What will Canada be taking to the WTO negotiating table in Cancún?

Stewart Wells: Canada is taking a position that is very involved and intricate. Different subsidies have different effects, hard to quantify, but there are subsidies called export subsidies. Various countries use various modulations of these. Some are more harmful than others to the export price. Canadian Government is very adamant that export subsidies should be removed, countries should not be using export subsidies.

The EU used to be a big offender in this particular neighbourhood and so did the US but there are variations on this theme. So food aid programmes such as the PL480 in the States, or even extended credit programmes for countries that can’t pay right away for their food, can be construed to be export subsidies. It is very difficult to tell whether a country is giving food aid for altruistic purposes or if it becomes another export subsidy.

A WTO meeting looks a bit like this: the European Union and the United States go into a room, decide what they are going to push, come out, present it to a few countries that they think they can bring on board and then present it to the world as agreed. The result inevitably favours multinational agribusinesses, who want to treat the world as if there are no borders and no sovereign states, and who just play off one group of farmers against another.

Just as companies act in a global way, however, farmers too must act globally, sooner rather than later, or we’ll always be easy picking. Monsanto, for instance, don’t charge the same fee in every country for their technology use agreements. We don’t have any idea what they will charge British farmers, I expect they will charge whatever they think British farmers will pay. In North America, the same corn seed is sold to Canadian farmers and US farmers but there’s a different fee to it. Canadian farmers pay 15 Canadian dollars per acre, US farmers pay a certain amount for a bag of seed. We are trying to do more research on this.

In the case of GM rice, I think it was the golden rice variety that there was so much talk about a year ago, there was no uptake on it by farmers in Indonesia and the rest of East Asia so the companies ‘saw the light’, and they came out with a public announcement: we won’t charge any fee for the use of the seed, it is such an important product that we will give it to the farmers so that they can take it out, seed it, and contaminate the countryside.

This tells me that if every single farmer in the world said ‘I am not paying to use that GM canola, these companies would say, ‘ its such a tremendous product, its going to do the world so much good, feed the world, we will give it to you ... !’ It proves my earlier point that farmers have to start working in a global, organized fashion, or we don’t have a chance.

Food security needs food sovereignty

openDemocracy: Consider the 19th-century discussion of the Corn Laws. People say now too that we should have free trade, we shouldn’t be protectionist, then everyone benefits. In a level playing-field Canada will benefit because of its land size and technological advantages?

Wayne Amos: I would like to see people being more clear about the distinction between food security and food sovereignty. The NFU favours food sovereignty, whereby individual countries set their own policies with regard to food. People are then really free to make their own decisions about what they eat and about the way their farming is carried out, since these decisions will be made with the democratic framework that sovereignty guarantees.

Lyle Wright: The EU move to decouple subsidies from production, should give countries the freedom to make their own policies about what sort of farming is supported, whether it be a farming that provides good stewardship of the land or high animal welfare standards. Under the present subsidy system France grows more wheat than Canada and there is a glut of grain.

Food security is the current buzz word on the lips of the US government. But how on earth can food be secure, if it is not also controlled by nations free to take their own decisions about their food production?

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData