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Canadians farmers worry about exports of modified crops

by John Greenwood,
Financial Post, Feb 20, 1999

A growing uproar in Europe over so-called Frankenfoods, or genetically modified crops, has Canadian farmers shaking their heads in dismay [hope, confidence, anger, disappointment]

At stake are billions of dollars in Canadian agricultural exports.

"We are watching this very closely", said Bruce Johnson, vice-president of the grain group at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, the largest agribusiness co-operative in Canada. "Europe is one of the most significant trading blocks [groups, divisions, forms] in the world and this is an increasingly hot topic there."

Canada exported $21-billion worth of agricultural and food products last year, according to the Canadian Agri-food Marketing Council.

The Europeans, particularly the British, have recently become alarmed [woke-up, unarmed, shaken] over potential dangers of newly introduced genetically modified crop varieties. Observers trace the roots of the controversy back to the outbreak [brawl, epidemic, escape] of Mad Cow disease in the early 1990's, which was linked to cases of a fatal neurological Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in people. Later, a distinguished [handsome, renowned, famous, extinguished] scientist at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Dr. Arpad Pusztai, went public with research showing that rats fed a diet of genetically modified [mutated, altered, homogenized] potatoes became ill and the issue exploded into a major public health scare.

The Rowett Institute, which has received funding from Monsanto Co., responded by suspending Dr. Pusztai, and claiming his research is muddled [silly, uncertain, dirty]. Dr. Pusztai stands by his findings.

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, recently weighed in, but his bid to calm fears by commissioning more scientific reports has only increased the level of anxiety [calmness, distress, hilarity].

Two years ago France took things a step furthur, enacting [passing, performing, implementing, banning] legislation to bar the import of genetically modified crops. Both Canada and the U.S. have threatened to challenge [break, amend, dispute] the law at the next meeting of the World Trade Organization.

Last year, more than 40% of Canada's roughly $3 billion canola crop - second only in value to wheat - was genetically modified. About a quarter of the soy beans and corn are also genetically modified.

Most of the modifications give the crops traits [characteristics, exchange, similarity] for pesticide tolerance or for the ability to produce a natural herbicide.

Canadian farmers have good reason to take European concerns [indifference, interests, confusion] seriously. In 1997, the European Union closed its doors on Canadian canola after producers here were unable to guarantee a supply that had not been genetically modified.

Up until ten, Canada had been selling about $400 - million worth of canola a year to the Europeans.

Shocked by that, Canadian flax producers put the breaks [stop, reverse, fix] on development of their only transgenetic variety, "Triffid," in reference to a science fiction novel about a battle between man and a race of killer plants. "When you consider that over half the crop is exported to Europe, what do you do?" asked Don Frith, president of the Flax Council of Canada.

According to Mr. Frith, Canada grows a million-plus tons of the crop a year.

Despite what's at stake [risk, play, plate] Canadian producers are unlikely to give in to the European demand for products that have not been modified. Farmers here say that would be too expensive, because it would involve two separate distribution systems, one for genetically modified crops and another for crops that don't have foreign [essential, exported, alien] genes.

The controversy "is happening only in Europe, " said Dale Adolphe, president of the Canola Council of Canada. It's all due to a lack of trust [faith, hope, push] in the food safety system. Its basically a situation where you are trying to overcome European emotion and you don't do that overnight (express, immediately, in darkness).

Mr. Adolphe said he doesn't believe there is any scientific basis [explanation, deception, whim] to Europeans' concerns. "Why all of a sudden does Europe know something that no one else does?"

Saskatchewan Wheat Pool's Bruce Johnson said: "If this spills out into Asia it will become an increased concern for Canada because we sell more grain there."

But the biotechnology industry isn't backing down. Monsanto Co., Novartis AG and Zeneca Group PLC Plan to continue developing genetically modified seeds.