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University of Manitoba home to new Monsanto Canada Breeding Centre

On Nov. 23, the University of Manitoba welcomed a new Monsanto Canada Breeding Centre. Meanwhile, protesters gathered on campus to oppose the opening.

Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, relocated its Canadian corporate head office to the U of M in 2005, following the construction of a new office building.

The new $12 million Monsanto Canada Breeding Centre will act as a site for breeding activities and research, covering nearly 2,700 square metres; the centre is located just next to Monsanto's existing office at the U of M's Smartpark. "The key purpose of Smartpark is to facilitate innovation, and Monsanto is a global corporation that is well known worldwide for its innovative research," said Alan Simms, U of M associate vice-president (administration) and president of Smartpark.

According to Simms, the new facility will be undertaking research in canola, which was first developed at the University of Manitoba by Baldur Stefansson in 1974. "The centre will be continuing the success story of a remarkable Manitoban who used collaboration and innovation to achieve his scientific goals," said Simms. Monsanto Canada currently invests nearly $30 million annually into research and development projects dedicated to canola. The centre will act as one of the several facilities on the continent pursuing breeding efforts for Monsanto's canola business. Monsanto Canada believes they can double canola crop yields by the year 2030.

However, there are many who remain skeptical of these claims. Protesters gathered in University Centre to speak out against the expansion of genetic engineering in agriculture, and more specifically, the presence of Monsanto on campus.

The protesters believed that, although Monsanto may claim its products increase yields, in reality they pose a major threat to sustainable agriculture. They voiced concerns in regards to the growth of super weeds and thus the need for more chemical input, as well as the reliance on fewer and fewer seed varieties.

"It's a food democracy question, it's a research and academic freedom question, but especially, it's an ecological question about what Monsanto is doing with the food system," said Alon Weinberg, one of the organizers of the protest. The protesters said they also disapproved of the company's patents on their products.

"The fact that they can have patents recognized for little alterations to seeds is an insult to the thousands of farmers and generations that came before them," said Weinberg.

Trish Jordan, public affairs director of Monsanto, said that these judgments of the company are often misinformed.

"Monsanto is a company that is 100 per cent focused on agriculture," she said. "Our customers are farmers. [ . . . ] We only make money because our products have a benefit to the farmers."

According to Jordan, Monsanto is dedicated to sustainable agriculture through the development of new technologies. "Farmers are able to produce more on less land, using fewer inputs, and do so in a way that has less impact on the environment," she said.

Manitoba's Green party leader, James Beddome, said he believes that genetically modified foods are not benefiting farmers, but rather depriving them of choice.

"It's closing export markets for farmers; it's making them beholden to corporations because they're forced to buy back their seeds from them," he said.

Besides the investment in unsustainable agriculture instead of organic agriculture, Beddome is also concerned for the next generation of agriculture students at the U of M.

"There's been a long standing history of universities remaining independent so that you can have independent validation of you studies. [ . . . ] If we start having our next generation of students going over to do their research with Monsanto it's going to bias the quality of their education," he said.

According to Jordan, the organic sector of the food market has been growing at the same rate, if not more rapidly than biotechnology, which was first introduced in 1986. However, Jordan noted the importance of being able to meet the needs of growing populations.

"They both have potential to be sustainable; the challenge with organic agriculture is that you cannot produce enough to feed nine billion people," she said.

Monsanto's current canola program is focused on supporting the canola business through the promotion of their Roundup Ready canola seeds, which are resistant to the herbicide Roundup, which was created by the company. The company seeks to bring new traits to canola such as increased yields, disease and pest protection as well as resilience in the face of environmental stresses.

This article was first published in the Manitoban, the University of Manitoba students' newspaper.

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