Seeds of Change Film: Farmers, Biotechnology, and the New Face of Agriculture

Risk Analysis of Genetically Modified Crops in the Canadian Prairies

The making of Seeds of Change was a publicly funded project, and was part of a larger, comprehensive research program examining the risks associated with biotechnology in agriculture. The following is a synopsis of the research that informs the Seeds of Change film, research that University of Manitoba (U of M) PhD Candidate Ian Mauro and U of M Associate Professor Stéphane McLachlan have been conducting since 2002. The work of Mauro and McLachlan is unique in that it gives voice to a perspective that has been excluded from the GM crops debate - that of farmers.

Project Timelines

Sept 2002–May 2003: Surveying farmers on GM canola across Manitoba
May – Sept 2003: Multivariate modeling of survey information
Sept – Nov 2003: Communication of results to farm groups, government, and industry
Nov 2003 - March 2004: GM wheat focused survey with farmers across western Canada
Mar 2004–Sept 2005: Spatial analysis of farmers' risk perception using survey data
Sept 2005 – Mar 2006: Develop and test spatial risk analysis model

Project Description

This is a long-term project that is farmer-focused. The research explicitly recognizes that producers are at greatest risk and one of the best sources of local and experience based knowledge regarding the use of genetically modified (GM) crops and their impacts on local environments and rural communities. Over a two-year period, farmers were surveyed – via mail outs, focus groups and semi-directed interviews – on their perceptions on the risks and benefits of GM herbicide tolerant (HT) canola and wheat. This data is being analyzed spatially and statistically, using risk mapping and analysis methodologies, with the goal of creating a model for participatory risk analysis.

Background

  • GMHT canola was introduced commercially in Canada in 1996
  • Canola production peaked with 14 million acres, now between 10-12 million
  • Approximately 90% of canola is herbicide tolerant & about 60-65% is GM
  • In 2004 Percy Schmeiser's case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada where he lost in a 5-4 split
  • The Saskatchewan Organic Directorate is in a legal battle with Monsanto and Bayer for compensation due to damages caused by GM crops
  • The first GMHT wheat, which is resistant to Roundup, was in the final stages of regulatory approval with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (C.F.I.A.), but Monsanto has temporarily retracted it from the approval process due to intense public pressure
  • The anticipated benefits of GMHT crops include: increases in yield, and declines in herbicides, soil erosion and herbicide resistance
  • Potential environmental risks include cross-pollination of conventional counterparts, increases in ‘volunteer' crops, spread of conferred traits to weedy relatives, and adverse impacts on farm economics and biodiversity
  • "Terminator" technology was strongly opposed when it was first promoted in the 1990s, but is now being re-considered as a possible "solution" to GM contamination
  • The battle over Terminator technology has recently intensified with the Canadian government pushing for its commercial release
  • The use of GM crops has been met with substantial resistance by consumers
  • Farmers have largely been left out of the urban-based discourse on GM crops
  • The importance of experience-based rural knowledge continues to be overlooked in North America

Project Objectives

  • Assess the experiences and insights of farmers using GMHT canola via surveys, looking specifically at volunteer issues;
  • Document producer perceptions of the benefits and risks of GMHT wheat, specifically Roundup Ready wheat, will be assessed via survey
  • Document perceptions of key farmers – Percy Schmeiser and Saskatchewan Organic Directorate – in the debate through semi-directed interviews
  • Develop a spatial, GIS-based participatory risk analysis model of use for GM crops

Project Deliverables

  • Best-practices & risk management guide regarding the planting of GM crops developed with participating farmers
  • Ongoing distribution of results for print as well as radio and TV media, especially producer-oriented media
  • Producer-oriented workshops, whereby results will be discussed and progress evaluated
  • Risk analysis model of farmers perceptions and experience with GM crops in the Canadian Prairies

Documentary & Educational Resources

Seeds of Change (Documentary)

  • Brings the opinions, concerns and local knowledge of rural communities to the forefront of the GM crop debate
  • Promotes alternative information to the expert-based science that currently dominates discussion
  • Transmits local knowledge that provides insights into the environmental, social and economic risks and benefits associated with GM crops
  • Tells the personal, passionate and often touching stories of prairie farmers, in the context of GM crops and rural decline

GM Wheat Video (Educational Resource)

  • Features Dr. Rene Van Acker on the population genetics and agronomic impacts of the commercial introduction of Roundup Ready wheat
  • Has been screened across Canada, throughout the USA, and in the UK
  • Received very positive reviews at the 2003 Environmental Network Film Festival

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the following groups for their support:

  • The Manitoba Rural Adaptations Council (MRAC) and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSRHC) are the principle funding agencies for this research
  • All of the producers that we have and will work with