A Canadian farming federation and an anti-GMO network are separately calling on the federal Competition Bureau to review the possible implications of Bayer's $66-billion US takeover of seed giant Monsanto.
"Our position right now would be for the Competition Bureau to really … examine what the impact is going to be and making sure that there's fair pricing and competition in the marketplace," said Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
As two of the world's biggest agriculture companies, Germany-based Bayer and U.S.-based Monsanto would control about 90 per cent of the canola seed market in Canada if they consolidate, Bonnett said.
Monsanto, headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., has for years been painted as an evil corporation by groups opposed to the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and pesticides it manufactures. The company is one of the largest producers of seeds in the world, including many genetically engineered varieties, and makes the weed killer Roundup. The genetically engineered seeds are resistant to Roundup, so farmers can get rid of weeds without affecting their crops.
Most farmers and scientists credit GMOs with producing higher-yielding, more sustainable crops, but opponents are concerned there could be detrimental health or environmental effects — some of which, they say, may not yet be known.
"This merger could further increase the price of seed, decrease choice in the marketplace for Canadian farmers, and stifle research and development," says a Sept. 15 submission to the Competition Bureau by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a group of 17 organizations with "serious concerns about genetic engineering in food and farming."
The call for a competition review is "foremost a concern over the immediate impacts on farmers, but there is a broader impact throughout the food chain globally," said Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.
"If there are fewer seed suppliers and if the seed market is dominated by a few multinational corporations who do have investments — large investments — in genetic engineering, the question for consumers becomes also, will that mean fewer non-GMO choices in the grocery store?"
Seed prices the issue for farmers
Bonnett emphasized that the agriculture federation's sole concern about the Bayer-Monsanto merger is the "competition aspect" and not about GMOs, which are widely used in Canadian canola, corn, soybean and sugar beet crops.
The issue of seed pricing, he said, has a "direct impact on the farmers," but "from a consumer's perspective, I'm not sure at this point there would be that much to worry about."
"The only impact would be on consumers if, all of a sudden, seed costs went quite a bit higher and that translated into higher costs for the commodities that were produced," Bonnett said. "But I don't see that as a major concern right now, because usually what happens is [if] seed cost goes up, the price is set in the marketplace and farmers might have to eat some of their profits."
Bonnett said he has already started to "hear rumblings" of anti-GMO groups using the news of the Bayer-Monsanto deal to start reigniting the debate about genetically engineered food. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture hopes to continue communications with consumers about new farming technologies that include, but also extend beyond, GMOs, he said.
Public unaware of GMOs
Mike von Massow, associate professor of food agriculture and resource economics at the University of Guelph, said even if Bayer gets rid of Monsanto's name in the takeover, he's not sure it would change "the discussion of genetically modified organisms in food at all."
"It takes sort of one of the big bogeymen out of the marketplace, but the reality is the technology is still there and the people who care about the technology both positively and negatively understand that," von Massow said.
"Monsanto was a convenient whipping boy to a significant degree but … the people who don't like them will still be out there saying, 'This product is genetically modified,'" he said.
Many consumers don't actually know which products are genetically modified, as there is no requirement for GMO labelling in Canada.
"To a large degree I don't think most people have an idea of how much of the food we eat is already genetically modified," von Massow said.
An estimated 60 to 70 per cent of processed foods on our grocery store shelves contain ingredients that come from genetically modified plants, von Massow said.
"It's my belief that it's not that people have made a conscious choice that it's OK, it's just that they're blissfully unaware," he said.
Still, even if GMO labelling regulations were applied in Canada, von Massow believes for many people, it would make no difference, partly because they are already overloaded with decisions to make around food, including calorie counts and sodium levels.
"The people ... that are really concerned about it, they will go out and seek out the options and they will look at the [GMO] labels," he said. "For the people who say it's not a big deal, [they] might look at the labels and buy something that's cheaper that is genetically modified.
"But for the great sort of mass in the middle … they just don't have the time to think about it," von Massow said.
An earlier version of this story said that Monsanto manufactures pesticides and herbicides. In fact, a herbicide is a form of pesticide.Sep 30, 2016 12:37 PM ET