Whither the Wheat

Seeking a grain of truth.

A  humdrum-looking 150-gram package of penne pasta recently arrived at my door in a padded mailing envelope. These random food drops generally inject a pleasantly absurd respite into my computer-bound days. A two-four of canned cream of broccoli soup here, a raw baking potato there. Such is the glamour of being a food writer.

The pasta, with its rectangular box and little cellophane window, looked just like any other grocery store product, except for the bizarre wording streaking across the broad side of the package. Was I to assume that “high yield potential,” “good straw strength,” and “easy to thresh” were its three best attributes? Looking for more information, I turned to the attached product information sheet which bellowed the arrival of CDC Verona, a brand new variety of durum wheat promising “improved genetics for efficient [Canadian Western Amber Durum] production,” developed at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre and grown in Alberta and Saskatchewan. A few minutes of research revealed only more claptrap about its threshability and alphanumeric parentage of D95253 and D95212. So what? Was I actually supposed to eat this? Furthermore, what gave them the idea that I would be the slightest bit excited about some new variety of proprietary wheat, created in a lab, recently let loose into fields on the Prairies, while other heritage strains were being lost to us because no one could patent them?

It was as if the box of pasta had sat up on my desk and poked me in the eye. I’d just spent a year researching and writing about how corporate agriculture has seized control of our global food system, selling farmers on the industrial attributes of their new-and-improved varieties, and leaving consumers with the illusion of choice in the grocery aisles. I ran two rooms over and stood by my husband at his desk, rattling the box of pasta above my head. “Just what we need.” I half-shouted. He looked both confused and alarmed. “Yet another scientifically trumped-up food, dreamt up by scientists and wrapped up in public relations hocus-pocus to sell to already desperate debt-riddled farmers and a largely apathetic public whose only connection to food is gliding their shopping carts around to milquetoast easy-listening music under buzzing florescent lights.”

He suggested that perhaps I was over-reacting to a free sample of dry pasta.

Back in my office, I emailed Nature’s Farm™, maker of Nature’s Pasta™, whose address at the Research Park at the University of Manitoba suggested it might be less about nature and farming than its trademarks suggested. “Is CDC Verona Amber Durum a GE wheat?,” I wrote in my best modern farming jargon, choking on the neutrality of my word choice as I typed.

“No, certainly not,” was the very prompt, very specific response.  “There are no certified GE varieties of wheat in Canada to date.”

It wasn’t just the University of Manitoba Research Park address that arched my eyebrow. On the corner of the penne package, amidst a cluster of tiny logos, I spotted the mark of Syngenta, the world’s largest “crop protection” company (the words they use to describe their agribusiness focus). Crop protection is agribusiness-speak for pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, and patented seeds that have been genetically engineered (GE) to survive regular dousing by a company’s proprietary farming chemicals, among other traits. If farmers want to use these patented biotechnology combos, they pay more upfront for the GE seeds than the non-GE varieties, plus they have to use the specific brand-name chemicals the seeds were developed to withstand. And they must sign a contract to not save seed for replanting from one year to the other, as that would constitute patent-infringement, which companies like Syngenta and Monsanto take rather seriously. Monsanto has famously bragged about its toll-free snitch lines set up so neighbours can report other neighbours suspected of “seed saving.”

Welcome to the brave new world of GE seeds, part of the broader world of genetically modified (GM) foods. Scientists figured out how to tinker with our major food crops at the genetic level in the nineteen-eighties and planted the first commercial GE crops in 1996, and now they’re plowing ahead into uncharted furrows, including inserting non-plant traits into everything from oilseeds to cereals to field crops, and genetically engineering animals, too. Today, corn, soybeans, canola, and sugar beets—the only four legal GE crops in Canada—aren’t just robust in the face of indiscriminate herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides, they can produce their own pesticides and insecticides themselves at the cellular level, which we unwittingly eat every day. Canada alone plants 8.8 million hectares of GE crops a year, which are then widely used in most prepared foods we buy at the grocery store.

Worldwide, we’ve already grown a billion hectares of GE crops since 1996. Thought to already be an $8.4 billion global industry, the handful of corporations that dominate the GE seed market are bullish about a GE food-filled future. They predict $50 billion in sales by 2025. They should know—they hold the patents to the seeds that produce our food. They’ve also since moved on to developing genetically modified pigs and salmon. Despite platitudes in their promotional materials about their corporate stewardship goals, crop protection is not about food safety. It’s not about feeding the world. It’s not about helping the family farm. It’s about colonizing the global food supply and concentrating it into the hands of a half-dozen corporations.

Which brings us back to the most widely eaten grain in the world: wheat. For years, companies such as Syngenta and Monsanto have been major corporate pushers in trying to get GE wheat approved as a commercial crop in Canada in order to edge into the $3 billion Canadian wheat industry. There have even been “field tests” in Saskatchewan and Alberta. In 2002, at least thirty-three GE wheat test plots were discovered to be growing in open fields in various locations throughout central and southern Saskatchewan alone; a total of fifty-one such sites were found in Canada. So, while there are no certified varieties allowed in Canada as the emailer from Nature’s Farms correctly asserted, he was splitting stalks. GE wheat has already been blowing in the wind across the prairies. And given the constant pressure from Big Ag to officially grant GE wheat commercial registration in Canada, it won’t be long before that box of pasta is made with pesticide-producing, herbicide-withstanding, industrial machine-ready wheat. Which perhaps may not whet your appetite.

Genetic engineering amounts to the fastest adoption of a new technology since the dawn of agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago, and it’s all moving so swiftly that there doesn’t seem to be time to make certain we’re asking the right questions? Do we really need new versions of wheat, canola, salmon and pigs? Are GE foods safe to eat over the course of generations? Why can we not choose between tried-and-true foods and these new-version look-alikes? We’ve entered into the GE food-age without having the GE food-conversation.

As far as Health Canada is concerned, we needn’t worry. According to its online document, Food and Nutrition: Frequently Asked Questions—Biotechnology and Genetically Modified Foods, “In Canada it is not mandatory to identify the method of production, including genetic modification, that was used to develop a food product. Nevertheless, voluntary method of production labelling is permitted, provided it is truthful and not misleading.” In other words, you don’t have to say anything, but if you choose to say something, please, be polite and don’t lie.

The average consumer can’t begin to understand the science behind genetic engineering. That’s the line that comes down from corporate agriculture, the major funder of post-secondary agricultural research, which not surprisingly is then parroted by government (always happy to offload the costs of university education to the corporate sector). Not only that, says corporate agriculture, tests done by the agribusinesses themselves show GE foods to be just as safe. Consumer confusion, therefore, must be the basis for “unfounded” fears about these new foods. Labelling food would simply cause mass panic in the grocery aisles.

The only thing, it seems, that keeps our government officials from opening the GE floodgates comes from cooler minds beyond our borders. We export seventy per cent of our wheat, and our major export markets don’t want anything to do with GE wheat. And you can’t just plant some GE wheat in one field and non-GE wheat in another. Genetic contamination can happen as easily as tripping over a box of pasta left at your door: it’ll happen if the wind blows or if a bee pollinates a non-GE plant with patented genetic property. Transportation and grain elevators are also contamination risks. And once these genes are in circulation, they will be impossible to control. Case in point: the Triffid flax disaster.

In the nineteen-nineties, a GE flax was developed at the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. It was designed to grow in herbicide-contaminated soil and was called CDC Triffid in a dubious reference to the nineteen-fifties science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids in which bioengineered plants, widely cultivated for oil production, also hunt, kill, and feed off humans. By 1998, it was licensed as a crop for human consumption in Canada, but Canada’s export markets were not interested in GE flax. All domestic production of Triffid flax was stopped in 2001 for fear that contamination of non-GE flax would render Canadian flax unsellable to all but a few foreign markets. Triffid seed stock was rounded up and destroyed.

In late 2009, the European Union announced that imports of Canadian flax were found to contain GE flax and thirty-five export markets closed their doors. Flax was a $320-million agricultural industry in Canada. This should have been a major news story.

Inspired by the Triffid flax scenario, the NDP Member of Parliament for BC Southern Interior, Alex Atamanenko, put forward a private members bill in 2009, Bill C-474. It was neither pro- nor anti-GE. It simply proposed that, “The Governor in Council shall, within 60 days after this Act comes into force, amend the Seeds Regulations to require that an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted.” It passed its first and second readings.

In June 2011, on the day of the bill’s third and final reading and vote, the members of the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food were invited to Guelph for a special meeting with the president of Monsanto Canada, which is a major funder of post-secondary agricultural research in Canada. Many Committee members missed the vote, and the bill was defeated 178 to 98. The tail wagged the dog, and not even the press managed a token bark.

Without any labelling laws in Canada, in the absence of any conclusive research evaluating long-term safety, without the media asking hard questions about environmental consequences (or even whether it is helping feed the world), we are already marginalized into asking questions to which there are, by design, few answers available. Simple questions, such as wondering whether the foods on my plate or the ones arriving in the mail, festooned with agribusiness logos or not, are genetically engineered. Of one thing we can be sure—there won’t be a press release or a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the local grocery store when the GE section opens. That’s because it’s already there.

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