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Canadian canola growers determined

14-Nov-2001

Canada, one of the world's largest agricultural exporters, is planting ever more genetically modified crops, despite worries about a key export market and consumer concerns about food safety.

 

 

 

"To this point in time, it has been worth our while," said Dale Adolphe, president of the Canola Council of Canada.

 

 

 

Canada is the leading producer and exporter of canola, a plant with a bright yellow flower and an equally colourful history.

 

 

 

The development of the oilseed has shaped and sustained western Canadian agriculture, bringing billions of dollars into the farm sector.

 

 

 

But with genetic modification, canola has also been buffeted by some ill trade winds and criticised by some environmental and consumer groups, such as Greenpeace, as an inadequately tested, so-called Frankenstein food.

 

 

 

Canola, a Canadian variant of rapeseed, brings in about $2.5 billion Canadian dollars ($1.56 billion) in annual sales to domestic crushers and export customers, ranking second only to wheat.

 

 

 

This year, about 61 per cent of the 10 million acres (four million hectares) seeded with the oilseed were transgenic, engineered to tolerate certain herbicides so that when farmers spray for weeds they do not harm their crops.

 

 

 

In Canada's bulk grain handling system, GM and non-GM canola varieties are not segregated when passing through grain elevators, railcars, port terminals and ocean-going ships, causing all of Canada's canola to be classified as transgenic.

 

 

 

Since GM canola varieties were introduced commercially in 1996, farmers in western Canada, where most canola is grown, have steadily embraced the technology for its ability to fight weeds, increase yields, lower the use of chemicals and prevent soil erosion by reducing field work.

 

 

 

In a 2000 canola industry survey of hundreds of western Canadian farmers, growers using GM varieties reported an average C$5.80 per acre increase in return.

 

 

 

Canadian canola first ran into export hurdles in 1998 when Europe issued a moratorium on imports of all new varieties of GM crops, partly because of a groundswell of public fear andpolitical concern about the environmental impacts and long-term safety of foods made with gene-spliced ingredients.

 

 

 

Oilseed analysts said that while the European ban initially jolted the Canadian industry, its GM canola soon found a new home in Mexico and China and increased interest from its oldest and largest customer, Japan.

 

 

 

Canadian farm groups, who still express bitterness about Europe's move, taken despite an absence of scientific evidence that genetically engineered crops are toxic to humans, have also shrugged off the ban, saying Europe was never a major customer anyway, buying on average about 300,000 tonnes a year.

 

 

 

Canada exported almost four million tonnes of canola in 1999/2000 and almost five million tonnes in 2000/2001.

 

 

 

More recently, and of increasing concern to the industry, is confusion over the implementation of new rules established on imports of GM foods by China, a market that bought almost two million tonnes of Canadian canola last year.

 

 

 

As of the end of September, no Canadian canola had gone to China since August 1, the beginning of the Canadian crop year, according to the Canadian Grain Commission.

 

 

 

In the last two weeks China has again begun to buy, picking up some 150,000 tonnes of Canadian canola, but worries about labelling and import rules remain a concern.

 

 

 

This uncertainty provides little comfort to those Canadian farmers who already have reservations about GM crops, primarily regarding the cost of the technology, market access, genetic outcrossing and so-called superweeds -- fears that herbicide-resistant canola might become a pest in years when producers grow other crops.

 

 

 

However, farm groups say the benefits and savings of planting GM canola far outweigh any drawbacks, especially when export markets do not pay a premium for non-GM varieties.

 

 

 

"We have concern in Canada, but nobody is buying us any separate market," said Roy Button, executive director of the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission. "Nobody is paying any premium for non-GM canola. So does that mean you should grow it?"