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Saskatchewan organic farmers likely to launch lawsuit over transgenic contamination

(Oct. 26, 2001 Ė CropChoice news) Ė Arnold Taylor is one of many Canadian farmers who have abandoned the production of canola using organic methods. The contamination from varieties genetically engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) Ė better known as Roundup Ready Ė make it difficult to grow the oilseed according to strict organic standards that disallow any level of transgenic organisms. Not only is obtaining seed that is certified to be free of the foreign genes difficult, but canola cross-pollinates easily, so easily that in many areas of Canada the plant is turning into something of a nuisance weed. (see Farmers fight introduction of Roundup Ready wheat in Canada and CBC broadcast: transgenic canola causing big Trouble)

Neither Monsanto nor Agriculture Canada would comment on this story.

In addition to costing him about C$20,000 per year by not growing canola on his 3,500-acre organic grain and cattle farm in Saskatchewan, Taylor is unable to include the plant in his rotation of wheat, flax, mustard, spelt, kamut, lentils, oats and peas. Like other farmers using sustainable methods, he tries to grow many different crops to build soil fertility and control insect and weed pests.

Taylor grew up on a farm in the 1940s and Ď50s. He didnít try it himself until 1972. Twenty years later, he began growing food organically.

"I had always hated the spraying (of synthetic herbicides and insecticides)," Taylor said. Giving up reliance on synthetic chemicals "put the fun back in farming. Youíre not married to the chemical companies and other high inputs. To conventional farmers, chemicals are like booze. You get pressure to use them from everyone, from extension agents, friends and advertising. You need a support group to get off them. Thatís why working together with other organic farmers such as in an O.C.I.A (Organic Crop Improvement Association) chapter has been of great benefit."

Nowadays, though, genetic engineering is drawing more attention in the organic community than are the problems with pesticides. Genetic contamination of canola and the impending introduction of transgenic wheat, which likely would cross-pollinate with organic and conventional varieties, has prompted the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate to take action.

The Saskatchewan provincial legislature may have aided its efforts last spring by passing legislation enabling class-action lawsuits. The Directorate executive staff last week held a press conference to announce that the organization will put the new law to use when it takes effect in January 2002. The 800 members, all of them producers of organic crops, will file a lawsuit against Monsanto and others responsible for introducing transgenic canola into the environment in Saskatchewan. Until then, Taylor, who is president of the Directorate, said the organization would prepare the legal action and raise money.

Also on the table is the possibility of including the federal government in the suit because of its role in allowing the introduction of transgenic crops, said Terry Zakreski, the lawyer representing the Directorate. In addition to seeking what are, so far, unspecified damages for financial losses resulting from the spread of Roundup Ready canola genes into organic varieties, the suit will seek to place an injunction on the introduction of transgenic wheat, sometime between 2003 and 2005.

"If (genetically modified) wheat were allowed, it would decimate the organic industry," Taylor said. He puts nearly half of his acreage into wheat production.

Farmers normally plant a 25-foot buffer between conventional and organic crops, but wheat can easily cross pollinate at 75 feet, so Taylor wonders whether it will be up to the organic farmer to deal with that and to incur the expense of testing crops for genetic purity.

Like Taylor and others, Marc Loiselle feels compelled to avoid growing organic canola rather than risk genetic contamination. An Asian buyer inquired last spring about paying C$17 to C$18 per bushel for organic canola that was 100 percent free of genetic contamination. Loiselle passed on it because he knew it would be impossible to get pure seed or to keep the crop free of transgenic traits during planting, pollination, harvest and distribution.

Beyond avoiding transgenic crops, which in Saskatchewan means only canola, Loiselle said organic farmers must also take care of where they source inoculants for legume seeds because some have genetically modified components.

Loiselle, who is the co-chair of the research committee for the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate, has been growing food organically for 16 years. He grows hard red spring wheat (the variety that Monsanto is genetically modifying), barley, oats, flax, peas, alfalfa, clover; in past seasons, he has produced fall rye, quinoa, and fenugreek.

While working in potash mines in 1981, a friend mentioned that his parents had been farming "chemical free" since 1969. Loiselle went with him to the farm and liked what he saw. That experience launched him into organic agriculture.

"For me itís a moral and ethical issue," he said. "I donít believe that people were meant to be stewards of the land by using unsustainable methods," such as synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and genetically modified organisms. "I donít think of the soil as just another commodity."

Debbie Miller is the administrator for the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate. She is also president of the Organic Crop Improvement Association, which is a certifier of organic crops. She notes that although there is some tolerance levels for pesticide drift onto organic fields, this isnít the case with genetically modified organisms.

She cited the incident with the genetic contamination of Terra Prima organic chips as an example of the negative effects of genetically modified crops on the organic industry.

For 11 years, Terra Prima, Inc., based in Hudson, Wis., has been marketing specialty soybeans, wheat, oil, and tortilla chips, all of which are organic. The company exports to Europe, Japan and sells some of its products domestically.

Melodi Nelson, vice president of Terra Prima, recounted the incident for CropChoice.

In December 1998, a magazine assessed the quality of various organic products, including genetic tests. These revealed 0.01 percent genetic contamination of the yellow corn in a bag of the Apache tortilla chips that Terra Prima makes and markets. The company responded by testing all the chips with that variety of yellow corn. They, too, showed similarly low levels of transgenic traits.

The company recalled that 87,000-bag lot of the chips to be destroyed.

Nelson said that she and the farmer (she would not identify him) who grew the organic corn that went into the chips believe that cross-pollination from transgenic Bt corn varieties was the cause.

"He did nothing wrong," Nelson said of the farmer. "He didnít plant genetically modified corn."

As a result, of this Terra Prima and the farmers from whom it buys organic ingredients are spending thousands of dollars on tests to confirm that the food is truly free of foreign genes. As a result the cost of a bag of the companyís chips has increased by about 5 percent a bag, she said. The company is struggling to reach 40 percent of its chip sales in 1998, prior to the contamination incident.

The U.S. government did not and has not compelled Monsanto and other biotechnology companies to take responsibility for segregating and testing the genetically engineered varieties they produce, as it should, she said.

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