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Canadian Government Approves Monsanto's GE Potatoes Despite "Extremely Poor" Field Tests; Will Be on Market Soon in U.S.

From: The Toronto Star
Jan. 23, 2001
Genetically modified spuds cleared
Inspectors had blasted `extremely poor' field trials
Stuart Laidlaw

The Canadian government approved a new line of genetically modified potatoes despite "extremely poor" field tests that federal inspectors feared would undermine the legitimacy of Canada's regulatory system, The Star has learned.

But despite objections by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, or CFIA, the Monsanto Co. potatoes - modified to fight potato beetles without pesticides - were released on to the market without further testing under pressure from farmers and Monsanto.

Among the numerous deficiencies cited by the federal inspectors, parts of the test fields that were supposed to be left free of all insecticides were in fact sprayed with a powerful bug killer.

These areas - dubbed ``refuges'' and planted with unmodified potatoes - are meant to slow the rate at which bugs develop resistance to the powerful toxins in the modified potatoes.

But while the agency at the time called the use of insecticides ``not compatible'' with the environmental controls it required for such tests, it is now considering allowing companies to routinely use insecticides on test fields, The Star has learned.

In all, Monsanto had about 1,170 hectares, or 2,900 acres, of potato test sites in Ontario, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Alberta and Manitoba in 1998, and wanted to expand to 10,000 acres in 1999.

But an October, 1998, audit by the CFIA's Fredericton office revealed numerous problems - including the use of Admire, an insecticide made by Bayer Corp. to control bugs such as the Colorado potato beetle.

The beetle is the most feared bug in any potato farmer's field.

The documents, released to Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin under the Access to Information Act, show the CFIA wanted the Monsanto trials scaled back and warned that giving in to industry pressure to press ahead would ``compromise the integrity'' of Canada's regulatory system.

Monsanto stood by its potatoes and field trials throughout several meetings with the CFIA and letters exchanged with the agency, the documents show.

It instructed farmers conducting the offending trials to keep those potatoes separate from the rest ``until such time as the non-registered product attains registration status.''

Adele Pelland, Monsanto Canada's manager of public relations, told The Star her company has since scaled back its potato research in Canada and imposed more strict controls on all its test sites to address the concerns raised in the audit.

``We've tightened our procedures,'' she said in a telephone interview.

CFIA spokesperson Steve Yarrow said the agency is satisfied that Monsanto is doing a better job of running its test sites, which are now restricted to no more than one hectare per site and five sites per province.

The Monsanto sites, with about 1,100 hectares at dozens of sites in four provinces, proved too large for the company to ensure that procedures were being followed properly, Yarrow said.

``If they become too large, they become difficult to manage,'' he said in a telephone interview from Ottawa.

The agency, concerned about the quality of the environmental controls in Monsanto's test fields, asked the company for additional information to assess the potential environmental and health impacts of the new potatoes.

The company, however, refused the request, saying it believed it had already submitted enough data showing that the potatoes presented ``no significant environmental, feed or food safety risk.''

In a deal brokered by potato growers, who called government officials and Monsanto to a meeting on March 2, 1999, Health Canada and the CFIA agreed to rule on approving the new potatoes within 30 days if Monsanto turned over the data.

Monsanto instead reformatted the data it had already submitted to address the CFIA's concerns, Pelland said.

And the potatoes were approved in time for the April planting season a month later - adding another product to the company's line of potatoes that have been genetically modified to fight beetles.

The potatoes are now marketed in Canada under the NewLeaf Y and NewLeaf Plus brand names.

Questions to Health Canada were referred to the CFIA.

Colorado potato beetles kill potato plants by eating the leaves.

Plants in a badly infested field can be stripped of their leaves by the bugs, rendering the field virtually incapable of producing a crop.

The beetle is able to quickly adapt to pesticides meant to keep them at bay, forcing farmers to be on an almost constant lookout for new products to apply to their fields.

`Fundamental changes to the regulatory system . . . as proposed by the potato industry, will compromise the integrity of this program.' - Morven McLean

Canadian Food Inspection Agency

One popular product is Admire, which is often sprayed into the soil at planting time to help non-GM plants fight beetles as they grow. It is not meant for use on GM fields.

Companies have been able to sell GM seed for about twice the price of conventional seed because farmers don't have to buy pesticides.

In the Monsanto trials, however, Admire was used in refuge areas of the fields.

Refuges, used commonly in GM farm plots and required by the CFIA in field trials, are planted with non-GM plants to slow the adaptation of beetles to toxins in GM crops.

They are supposed to make up about 20 per cent of a field.

``The use of Admire in designated refuges is not compatible with the function of the refuge,'' Grant Watson of the CFIA said in a Dec. 3, 1998, letter to Monsanto.

In documents obtained by The Star, agency staff member Morven McLean said that the ``confined trials'' by Monsanto were so poorly handled that the company should not be allowed to expand its tests to a planned 10,000 acres, or 12 per cent of Canada's total potato acreage.

``The results of this audit clearly demonstrate that Monsanto was not able to manage confined trials of this size,'' wrote McLean, who conducted the audit, in a memo dated Feb. 19, 1999.

``The production of 10,000 acres of transgenic potatoes, as proposed by the seed-potato industry, would put the CFIA, the minister and the industry at risk as such large-scale production cannot be grown under adequate conditions of confinement and the environmental, food and feed safety of these transgenic potatoes has yet to be determined.''

Still, Yarrow at the CFIA said the agency is considering allowing companies, and the farmers contracted to conduct their trials, to routinely use insecticides in test fields.

That's because Monsanto told the agency its tests showed that Admire was not able to kill all the bugs in the refuge area, leaving behind enough bugs for the refuge to continue fulfilling its function.

Yarrow, while admitting that it would seem ``counter-intuitive'' to spray bug killer in a field meant to test potatoes that have been genetically modified to resist bugs, said the need to maintain an insecticide-free zone must be balanced against the farmer's need to ensure that his entire field is commercially viable.

``From the grower's point of view, they don't like the idea of growing 20 per cent of their potatoes vulnerable to the beetle.''

He said agency staff have been working with seed companies, including Monsanto, and farmers for four months to come up with new guidelines for future field trials, including allowing insecticides in refuge areas.

Despite the earlier warnings, however, the potatoes being tested were quickly approved by both the CFIA and Health Canada and were on the market within weeks of the March, 1999, meeting, in time for the start of the planting season.

The move came amid pressure from both potato farmers and Monsanto, who said any delay would put the Canadian industry at a competitive disadvantage to the United States, where Monsanto's potatoes were closer to being approved and could be on the market sooner.

``However, this is a deficiency, not an advantage, of the U.S. regulatory system,'' McLean wrote in her February, 1999, memo.

In the same memo, McLean warned that the reputation of Canada's regulatory system - which, she wrote, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development had urged others to copy - could be damaged by approving the potatoes as quickly as the industry wanted.

``Fundamental changes to the regulatory system . . . as proposed by the potato industry, will compromise the integrity of this program.''

McLean's audit raised several other concerns, including:

Improper training of farmers involved in the trials, and on whose land the trials were being conducted.

The company had not done enough to ensure that the farmers were conducting the trials properly and was not able to prove it had ever visited any of the test sites to make sure the trials were done properly.

The refuges in some of the fields were below the 20 per cent required under the terms and conditions for CFIA approval of the confined trials.

Buffer zones, the space left between the test plots and the farmers' commercial fields, were likewise too small.

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