Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/4/2010 (4207 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Just over a decade has passed since the use of genetically modified crops on Prairie farms became widespread.
Although farmers have wholeheartedly embraced them, some of the downsides predicted by early critics -- which were pooh-poohed by the experts -- have also turned out to be true.
It turns out, cross-contamination does occur between genetically modified (GM) and non-GM crops, such as the spread of volunteer herbicide-resistant canola genes into other farmers' fields.
It can also take place in the lab -- as illustrated by the seepage of GM-variety CDC Triffid flax into the Prairie flax seed supply.
Secondly, when this occurs, market repercussions are likely. Despite its widespread popularity with farmers, and apathy among North American consumers, there has been little progress over the past decade persuading significant export markets, such as Europe, to accept the technology.
Another concern was that these cropping systems could give rise to more herbicide-resistant weeds. That has also proven true. Since the release of Roundup Ready crops, there have been 17 weed species worldwide that have developed resistance to the key ingredient of Roundup, glyphosate. Just recently, Canada's first known resistant population -- giant ragweed -- was confirmed in Ontario.
This trend reduces glyphosate from a non-selective herbicide, meaning farmers only need to use one product, to a selective one, which means farmers must use it in conjunction with other products. In other words, they may need to use more herbicides or use more tillage, which runs counter to conservation farming ideals.
But perhaps the most significant developments of late relate to control over the seed supply. Critics who fretted control would fall into the hands of a few large multinationals were written off 10 years ago as paranoid and anti-progress.
Maybe they were. But they were also right. Farmers have seen some vivid examples of late about just how that is affecting how they operate.
For starters, they don't dare grow seed containing a company's technology unless they have that company's permission, which also gives the company the right to inspect their fields and bins. If they are found to be in breach of their contract, they run the risk of not getting another one, which limits their access to seed.
It's controlling all right, but it's not all bad. The companies involved with Bt-corn, which has a built-in insecticide, were virtually ordered by an industry committee recently to crack down on farmers who were not adhering to the requirements to maintain non-Bt insect refuges.
Refuges are important when growing insect-resistant corn because they maintain a small population of non-resistant insects, which then dilute resistant traits that will eventually develop in the general population.
Compliance with the protocols had dropped to 61 per cent in 2009 from 80 per cent five years ago. Because the companies hold a pretty big compliance hammer -- access to seed -- it's likely that trend will be reversed, pronto.
Less positive, at least from farmers' and the public's perspective, is the decision recently by many of Canada's canola seed developers to stop entering their canola varieties into annual independent yield performance trials conducted over a wide geographic base.
Their stated reason was the trial plots were too small to adequately reflect their variety's performance. However, industry observers familiar with objective testing say a more likely explanation is the plot trial results undermined corporate marketing programs.
Because one company's varieties have consistently outperformed the others in recent years, it's like entering a horse race knowing someone else will win.
The big losers here are the farmers, who are now left with the companies' say-so when trying to select varieties that will work best on their farms. They can still turn to crop insurance data, which is based on farmers' actual experience with varieties in their area, but that doesn't help them when looking at new varieties coming to market.
Even more insidious are recent reports the companies won't allow independent researchers to explore questions surfacing about this technology's longer-term environmental effects.
Reuters reported that 26 leading academic entomologists complained to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year that they are restricted from doing independent research by technology agreements companies attach to every bag of biotech seed.
"No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology," the scientists said in their statement.
The companies are, after all, simply looking after shareholders' interests, which they are legally obligated to do. The question for government regulators, however, is whether that is consistent with protecting the public interest.
Laura Rance, editor of the Manitoba Co-operator, can be reached at 792-4382 or by email:
Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.