GM wheat tests making farmers nervous

There's a wheat experiment happening in the Prairie provinces that some growers believe could ruin their crops and put Canada's entire wheat industry at risk.

"Most people are unaware that genetic engineering of wheat testing is even happening," said agronomist Sharon Rempel.

Genetically modified wheat is still in the research stage. It is being planted in test sites across the Prairies. So far, Ottawa has approved more than 50 sites in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

It's the third year for trials. And the Canadian Wheat Board is nervous. "I think there is a state of nervousness. Our customers hear about the research plots and they are concerned about contamination of the product that we're selling them," says Greg Arason, the CEO of the Canadian Wheat Board.

The fear is of accidental contamination. Seeds spilled, or pollen drifting from the test sites to ordinary wheat fields. Then crossing with native wheat and spreading artificial genes.

Stephen Yarrow of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says those fears have been take into consideration. "Pollen moves and that's why we have isolation distances on the trials and other limitations on the trials to minimize this as much as possible."

It's up to Yarrow to make sure the tests are safe. The agency has already increased the buffer zone from 10 to 30 metres based on new information about pollen drift. "The distance we had last year was quite adequate as far as we're concerned. But this just gives us an extra degree of caution in terms of how these trials are conducted," he said.

But Rempel is not reassured. "Once the pollen starts to flow we don't really know where that's going to go. The 30-metre buffer zone around the contained sites may be perceived as adequate but we don't know if there will be birds or insects or such visiting that could transfer that pollen into other crops," she said.

For most farmers the biggest concern is the secrecy. The test sites are confidential and protected by law.

"We have to protect the interest of the developers of these sorts of crops," said Yarrow.

But it's also a problem for organic grower Steven Snider. He says he had to give up on organic canola because his customers fear it could be contaminated with genetically modified varieties. Now he's afraid the same thing could happen to his wheat.

Although many wheat growers are wary about the new wheat they still have another two or three years before it's commercially available.

Some say it could turn out to be beneficial crop. But until they are sure, they say they want to know where it's growing, so they can keep their distance.