Secrecy surrounds GM wheat trials in PEI

Reprinted with permission from CBC News

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Friday, July 27, 2001

CBC News Online staff
CBC Prince Edward Island 

CHARLOTTETOWN - The location of test plots for genetically modified wheat on Prince Edward Island has been kept so secret that even the provincial agriculture minister has been kept in the dark.

"I absolutely think the province has a right to know," said P.E.I. Agriculture Minister Mitch Murphy.

But a series of government documents published in an Island newspaper revealed the province didn't know where the GM wheat was planted.

Last March, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency told P.E.I. that biotechnology company Novartis wanted to test some GM wheat in the province.

P.E.I.'s agriculture minister sent back a list of questions. The CFIA asked Novartis to answer them.

In response to the question of the exact locations of the field trial sites, Novartis replied the information was "strictly confidential."

Novartis says it is worried about vandalism and wants to ensure the safety of its personnel. The company also says it wants to protect its intellectual property from industrial espionage.

"I don't think the issue of industrial espionage, if we can use that term, is a good enough reason not to be transparent with the information," said Murphy.

Farmers across Canada concerned

Island farmers like David Mol are also curious. The Kensington, P.E.I., farmer wonders if one of the test sites was anywhere near his fields.

"I'd be concerned with cross-pollination, or that proper procedures and safety protocols were followed," said Mol.

Farmers across the country have expressed their concerns about the test plots.

Earlier this week, a group representing Saskatchewan farmers and health activists called on the prime minister to prevent the introduction of GM wheat.

The Canadian Wheat Board has also failed in its attempts to find out where the test plots are located.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says its hands are tied by privacy laws.

CFIA spokesperson Stephen Yarrow said he's sympathetic to the reasons why people want to know.

"We are on the side of the protection of proprietary information," he said. "That's how it looks, because that's how it is."

Transparent process needed

Murphy says more openness will lead to greater acceptance of GM wheat once it's ready to market.

"If we're going to give this technology a true evaluation, then the process used to test it has to be open and transparent," said Murphy.

Murphy also said Ottawa didn't answer his inquiry about who would be liable if something went wrong with the tests.

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