Published on Thursday, May 25, 2000 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
British Farmer Plows Under Crop Of Genetically Modified Canola
by Alan Freeman
LONDON - John Sanderson has become the first British farmer to rip up his canola in the wake of the European scare over genetically modified crops.

"We will be finished plowing it under this afternoon," Mr. Sanderson said in an interview yesterday from his 180-hectare farm near Harleston in Suffolk, which includes 10 hectares planted with a tainted Canadian seed.

Environmentalists and politicians expressed outrage last week when it was disclosed that Advanta Seeds, a Netherlands-based agricultural firm, had supplied farmers in Britain, France, Sweden and Germany with canola seed inadvertently contaminated in Alberta with seed genetically modified through cross-pollination.

So-called GM crops, which are bred to resist insects and disease, are banned from general use in Europe, although grown in strictly controlled tests. In North America, GM crops are widely used, especially in the case of canola.

Sweden has said it is likely to order the destruction of the 500 to 600 hectares of suspect canola now growing, and there are pressures in France to do the same. But in Britain, where the vast majority of the seed was sold, the government has no plans to follow suit.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott told the House of Commons yesterday that the government is convinced the canola poses no threat to human health or the environment.

Yet Mr. Sanderson's decision to plow under the crop is indicative of the pressures on farmers. Five major supermarket chains have announced they will insist their suppliers guarantee that GM-tainted canola is not used in food processing.

Canola is used as an edible oil in margarine, cookies and a variety of other foods.

"The consumer in this country is suspicious of it [GM crops] and we as producers shouldn't be producing a crop that consumers aren't happy with," Mr. Sanderson said. "We as farmers have made a virtue of our environmental credentials and this would seem to threaten that."

He discovered last week he was one of 600 British farmers to have bought Hyola 38 seed supplied by Advanta. He decided to act before the crop flowered, fearing it could cross-pollinate with conventional canola growing nearby.

Asked if he'd buy Canadian seed again, Mr. Sanderson said: "I'd think twice about it." He said he holds Advanta responsible for supplying the seed and is seeking legal advice about possible court action. He put his losses at several thousand pounds.

At Tesco, Britain's largest supermarket chain, spokesman Sam Soffe said the company has advised its suppliers it won't buy any of the tainted canola (known in Britain as rapeseed) for use in its Tesco brand products, which account for about 50 per cent of sales.

Alan Simpson, a backbench Labour MP, believes that all farmers should follow Mr. Sanderson's lead and that the government should provide compensation. He also warned that the controversy risks ruining Canada's reputation as an agricultural exporter.

"Canada can make any decision it likes, but you ain't going to be able to give that stuff away over here," he said.

Copyright 2000 Globe Interactive