National | Opinion

Cereals Canada’s Irresponsible GM Wheat Policy

The discovery of genetically modified (GM) spring wheat plants growing in Alberta is disappointing and damaging to Canadian farmers. And so is the reaction by Cereals Canada—an industry-dominated group that falsely claims to represent Canadian wheat farmers.

An article published in 2014 quotes Cereals Canada President, Cam Dahl saying, “Cereals Canada’s support for GM wheat is consistent with the policy of its member associations, which includes the Grain Growers, miller’s association and life science companies. The policy was adopted by Cereals Canada board of Directors…” Following a GM wheat contamination incident in Oregon in 2014, Cereals Canada also signed on to a statement in support of further investment in, and commercialization of genetically modified wheat. Cereals Canada supported an irresponsible policy then, and they haven’t learned anything from Canada losing important markets now.

Escapes of genetically engineered plants and resulting market disruptions were predicted by the NFU 15 years ago and were a major reason for the NFU’s opposition to GM wheat. Japan, which was the highest priced market when the Canadian Wheat Board was marketing Canadian wheat, has stopped all shipments of Canadian wheat and flour. Others may follow. In June, 2003 an NFU media release highlighted the unacceptable risks of GM wheat, calling it BSE for Grain Farmers:

“Canadian cattle producers are experiencing the devastating consequences of border closures and market losses that have resulted from BSE. At the same time, however, the Canadian government is considering the approval of the grain system equivalent of BSE: genetically-modified wheat. GM wheat will lead to massive market losses and will effectively close borders to Canadian exports. But unlike BSE—which can be rooted out and markets and borders reopened—the devastating effects of GM wheat will be permanent.”

Rather than recognize that their blind support of GM wheat has helped create today’s contamination problem, Cereals Canada and its members were quick to revert to the “it’s all safe” biotech industry mantra, which ignores the very real market problems they helped to create. And therein lies one of the central problems with Cereals Canada—on this issue, and many others, some of its Board members are in a conflict of interest. For a so-called life science company, passing up an opportunity to sell more chemicals or seed would contradict their company’s interests.

There is no question that the policies of Cereals Canada members such as the Western Canadian Wheat Growers and Grain Growers of Canada helped provide Monsanto and the government the cover they needed to seed experimental plots of GM wheat at secret and undisclosed locations 15 years ago, over the strongest objections of organizations like the National Farmers Union. (Even provincial governments were not trusted to know the locations of the plots.)

The farmer-run Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) also recognized the marketing liability that GM wheat posed. In 2003 the CWB’s media relations manager said, “Our customers are telling us they don’t want to buy GM wheat, the market is telling us they don’t want it, and we certainly haven’t seen evidence that people want it”.

The CWB stood up for the interests of Canadian farmers and our international customers who do not want GMO wheat. No doubt its firm opposition to GM wheat is another reason that members of Cereals Canada worked so hard to destroy the CWB. Clearly, Cereals Canada cannot be trusted to represent the interests of Canadian wheat farmers.

And Cereals Canada has worked against the interests of farmers on other issues, as well. By continually undermining the Canadian Grain Commission, and calling for U.S. grain to freely enter Canada and be comingled with Canadian grain, Cereals Canada promotes other irresponsible policies. It would be untenable to maintain the current rail rates (MRE) if large amounts of U.S. grain were clogging up the Canadian transportation system.

Cereals Canada has recently embarked on a plan to merge with/take over the Canadian International Grains Institute (CIGI). The farmer checkoff money that helps support CIGI makes CIGI a target that is just too good to pass up. However, with the mission statement “to be the trusted independent source for milling, quality and end-use functionality expertise for millers and end users of Canadian grain to increase market opportunities and end-user success”, CIGI does incredibly important work on behalf of Canadian farmers and it would be extremely damaging to have CIGI taking the same irresponsible policy positions endorsed by Cereals Canada. Given its track record, Cereals Canada has no right to a merger or takeover of the CIGI.

Stewart Wells
About the author

Stewart Wells

Stewart is a past President of the NFU, and is currently 2nd Vice President (Operations). He is a third generation farmer farming certified organic grain on family land in southwest Saskatchewan near Swift Current. He's been a part of an array of farm organizations such as the Canadian Agri-food Policy Institute, the Canadian Wheat Board, and the Western Grains Research Foundation.

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