Farmer knowledge and a priori risk analysis: pre-release evaluation of genetically modified Roundup Ready wheat across the Canadian prairies
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Background, aim, and scope
The controversy over the world’s first genetically modified (GM) wheat, Roundup Ready wheat (RRW), challenged the efficacy of ‘science-based’ risk assessment, largely because it excluded the public, particularly farmers, from meaningful input. Risk analysis, in contrast, is broader in orientation as it incorporates scientific data as well as socioeconomic, ethical, and legal concerns, and considers expert and lay input in decision-making. Local knowledge (LK) of farmers is experience-based and represents a rich and reliable source of information regarding the impacts associated with agricultural technology, thereby complementing the scientific data normally used in risk assessment. The overall goal of this study was to explore the role of farmer LK in the a priori risk analysis of RRW.
Materials and methods
In 2004, data were collected from farmers using mail surveys sent across the three prairie provinces (i.e., Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta) in western Canada. A stratified random sampling approach was used whereby four separate sampling districts were identified in regions where wheat was grown for each province. Rural post offices were randomly selected in each sampling district using Canada Post databases such that no one post office exceeded 80 farms and that each sampling district comprised 225–235 test farms (n = 11,040). In total, 1,814 people responded, representing an adjusted response rate for farmers of 33%. A subsequent telephone survey showed there was no non-response bias.
The primary benefits associated with RRW were associated with weed control, whereas risks emphasized the importance of market harm, corporate control, agronomic problems, and the likelihood of contamination. Overall, risks were ranked much higher than benefits, and the great majority of farmers were highly critical of RRW commercialization. In total, 83.2% of respondents disagreed that RRW should have unconfined release into the environment. Risk was associated with distrust in government and corporations, previous experience with GM canola, and a strong belief in the importance of community and environment. Farmers were critical of expert-based risk assessment, particularly RRW field trials, and believed that their LK was valuable for assessing agbiotechnology as a whole.
Over 90% of canola production across the Canadian prairies makes use of herbicide-tolerant (HT) varieties. Yet, respondents were generally uniform in their criticism of RRW, regardless whether they were HT users, non-HT-users, conservation tillage or organic in approach. They had a sophisticated understanding of how GM trait confinement was intrinsically tied to grain system segregation and, ultimately, market accessibility, and were concerned that gene flow in RRW would not be contained. Organic farmers were particularly critical of RRW, in large part because certification standards prohibit the presence of GM traits. Farmers practicing conservation tillage were also at relatively great risk, in part because their dependence on glyphosate to control weeds increases the likelihood that RRW volunteer would become more difficult and costly to control.
This research is the first of its kind to include farmer knowledge in the a priori risk analysis of GM crops and, arguably, given its prairie-wide scope, is the largest scale, independent-farmer-focused study on GM crops ever conducted. The surprising uniformity in attitudes between users and non-users of GM technology and among organic, conventional, conservation tillage and GM using farmers speaks to the ability of farmers to discriminate among HT varieties. Our results clearly show that prairie farmers recognize that the risks associated with RRW commercialization outweigh any benefits.
Recommendations and perspectives
Farmer knowledge systems are holistic in nature, incorporating socioeconomic, cultural, political, and agroecological factors that all can contribute meaningfully to the pre-release evaluation of GM crops. The inclusion of farmers and other stakeholders in risk assessment will also help enhance and even restore public confidence in science-focused approaches to risk assessment. Although farmers are highly knowledgeable regarding RRW and arguably any agricultural technology, their expertise continues to be overlooked by decision-makers and regulators across North America.
KeywordsA priori risk analysis Farmer knowledge Genetically modified crops Public participation Roundup Ready wheat
We would like to thank the farmers that participated in this study, and value their knowledge and expertise. Special thanks to Melisa Yestrau for processing and mailing surveys and to Ryan Brook who assisted with data analysis. The Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), operating grant to S.M. McLachlan and PhD scholarship to I.J. Mauro, and the Manitoba Rural Adaptations Council (MRAC) provided financial support for this research.
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