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GM wheat field tests continue in Canada

Monsanto shelved Roundup Ready wheat in 2004, but other companies continue open-air experiments with GM wheat

There might not be any commercial GM wheat in production in Canada — but most years there are at least some field trials.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which is charged with regulating confined Plant Novel Trait field trials, has confirmed this fact.

‘Confined’ PNT field trials must be approved by CFIA and come with many regulations to stop unapproved genetic modifications through recombinant DNA, mutagenesis, or conventional plant breeding, from escaping.

“These terms and conditions of confinement include, but are not limited to, reproductive isolation, site monitoring, and post-harvest land use restrictions and are designed to minimize the exposure of the PNT to the environment,” CFIA’s website says.

CFIA also inspects the sites to ensure compliance, it said in a report it released June 15 after announcing wheat found in southern Alberta last summer was genetically modified.

Terry Boehm, chair of the National Farmers Union’s (NFU) seed committee, was surprised GM wheat is still tested in Canadian fields. When Monsanto shelved plans to commercialize its GM Roundup Ready wheat on 2004 he assumed all GM wheat field tests had ceased. And he thinks others did too.

Last year there were 11 and 43 confined GM wheat trials in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, respectively, a CFIA official wrote in an email June 22. Trait objectives included herbicide tolerance, yield increase, fungal resistance, and selectable markers.

“Biotech companies have done field trials of genetically modified wheat most years since 1998, including two in Ontario in 2011 and 2012, and 13 in Alberta in 2014,” CFIA said. “Wheat research trials were not conducted in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

“Monsanto did outdoor genetically modified herbicide-tolerant wheat trials from 1998 through 2004. Syngenta and BASF did field testing in 2005 and 2006. For the past five years, most of the field trials have been done in Manitoba and Saskatchewan… including 32 by Bayer Crop Science.”

A full list of PNT trials is online at the CFIA website.

Halt trials

In wake of CFIA confirming June 15 unauthorized GM was found in Alberta last year, Boehm wrote CFIA June 20 asking it to stop allowing open-air testing of GM wheat.

“The only way to prevent these genetic escape incidents happening in the future is to ban outdoor testing,” Boehm wrote.

But CFIA says there are no cases of experimental GM wheat persisting in the Canadian environment.

“None of the wheat trials have occurred at or near the location where the GM wheat plants were found, and there is no evidence directly linking the current GM wheat finding with these previously authorized trials,” the CFIA report says.

Boehm is skeptical. That’s why the NFU wants to know where GM wheat is and has been tested.

“Thus, we are requesting that the CFIA make public the precise location of every current and past genetically modified wheat test site so that farmers and other Canadians can be on the lookout for escapes and if found, assist in eradicating them.”

CFIA posts information online about Plant Novel Trait field trials in Canada, including the company conducting the trial, the trait, crop and the province the trial is in, CFIA said.

“The approximate trial locations are published, but specific trial locations are not reported publicly to prevent the destruction (vandalism) of research field trials,” CFIA said. “Also the CFIA’s Access to Information and Privacy Office advises that this information may not be released.”

Too close

The NFU also says 30 metres of isolation from other wheat crops isn’t enough. The Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale passed a resolution at its annual meeting in Saskatoon, Feb. 26, 2004 requiring GM wheat tested in variety registration trials have 300 metres of isolation. No GM wheat has entered those trials, a committee member confirmed last week.

“Minimum isolation distances for all crops have been established through consultation with academics, scientists, and other stakeholders, using requirements adapted from the Canadian Seed Growers Association (CSGA) for producing pedigreed seed crops,” says CFIA.

(Isolation requirements vary by crop. Argentine canola must be 200 metres from other brassica’s and 50 from weedy relatives, CFIA’s regulations state.)

The list of safeguards researchers must take when conducting confined PNT field trials is long.

“The PBO (CFIA’s Plant Biosafety Office) may refuse to authorize or may restrict the scope of the release of a PNT where the proposed confined release poses an unacceptable risk to the environment and/or animal and/or human health, or there is a reasonable risk of not meeting the confinement conditions,” CFIA’s website says. “Restrictions on the size and number of trials are in place to mitigate the exposure of the PNT material to the environment.”

Researchers are required to keep extensive records, clean equipment, and store and dispose of PNT crops in a way that keeps them out of the environment.

“No seed or plant material from the confined research field trials may enter the human or livestock feed chain unless approved by Health Canada and the Animal Feed Division of CFIA, respectively,” CFIA’s website says.

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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