Regulators are scratching their heads after seven genetically modified wheat plants were found in Alberta.
No country, including Canada, allows genetically modified (GM) wheat to be produced commercially, so the discovery raises questions, including some the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) can’t answer, like how it got there and the variety of wheat involved.
However, during a technical briefing with reporters June 14, CFIA stressed what’s most important is extensive testing, with help from the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC), shows there’s no GM wheat in Canada’s commercial wheat and seed system, that all the wheat in the discovery area on a southern Alberta farm has been destroyed and the site will be monitored for three years.
In that wheat CFIA found a gene Monsanto uses to make plants tolerant to the non-selective herbicide glyphosate, branded by Monsanto as Roundup.
The same GM trait has been used in canola, soybeans and corn for more than 20 years, David Bailey, CFIA’s Director of the Plant Production Division, told reporters.
“In these crops previous Health Canada and CFIA safety assessments have demonstrated that this trait does not pose a risk to public health, the health of animals, or the environment,” he added.
Since no country has approved GM wheat, finding it in a shipment would likely result in the buyer rejecting it and possibly declining future deliveries. That could result in fewer markets and lower prices for Canadian wheat producers.
When asked how CFIA’s discovery could affect Canadian wheat sales, CFIA and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) officials repeated no GM wheat has entered the commercial system, implying buyers needn’t worry.
“When it comes to trading partners we have developed a test kit that we can share with trading partners who wish to test their own grain that is imported from Canada,” Bailey said. “We have every confidence in our system.”
- Read more: Japan suspends sale of Canadian wheat
In a news release Cereals Canada made the same point.
“Canada’s commitment to transparency, combined with strong regulatory systems, provides confidence to customers,” Cereals Canada’s release said. “Cereals Canada retains confidence in Canada’s science and risk-based regulatory system.
Customers can be assured that the rigorous assessment and monitoring process will continue to deliver the consistent high-quality, safe wheat that they have come to expect from Canada.”
Noticed and tested
The process leading to the discovery began last summer. A commercial herbicide applicator reported wheat plants along an access in southern Alberta had survived a glyphosate treatment. The Province of Alberta confirmed in late January the wheat was herbicide tolerant, CFIA says in a report on the case.
CFIA was notified Jan. 31. It’s laboratory tests confirmed the wheat was genetically modified.
With assistance from Monsanto, CFIA was able to conclusively determine that the Alberta GM wheat is not a genetic match to previous unapproved GM wheat releases in the United States in Oregon in 2013, and Montana and Washington in 2014 and 2016, respectively.
“These incidents involved GM wheat lines that are genetically different from the GM wheat found in Alberta,” the CFIA report says. “There is no evidence linking Canada’s GM wheat finding to previous United States cases. Similar to Canada’s finding, GM wheat cases in the United States were isolated incidents, and GM wheat did not enter commerce.”
Those incidents didn’t result in long-term harm to American wheat exports, however, there was short-term pain.
After the 2013 discovery Japan and South Korea suspended imports of U.S. wheat, according to published reports.
China, Thailand and the Philippines tightened inspections and the European Union encouraged member countries to increase import testing.
Monsanto paid more than $2 million to settle lawsuits from U.S. farmers claiming the company failed to protect the wheat market from contamination.
Monsanto Canada, which was developing glyphosate-tolerant GM wheat in the late 1990s and early 2000s in partnership with AAFC, is co-operating with CFIA, but the company hasn’t been able to independently verify CFIA’s findings, spokesperson Trish Jordan said in an interview June 14.
What’s odd is the GM ‘event’ CFIA found was dropped by Monsanto in 2000 in favour of other ‘events’ it planned to commercialize, Jordan said.
“It is an event we did field trail research on,” she said. “But the last time we did any research on the germplasm that we were given, which was a hard red spring wheat, was 2000. How do you get six or seven wheat plants showing up in 2017?
“It doesn’t make sense. It shouldn’t happen through cross pollination. It shouldn’t happen by wind blown pollen. It’s just not in the right spot.”
CFIA is just as puzzled.
“The field trials for these were done many hundreds of kilometres away from the discovery site and many years ago so there is no relationship between that given field trial and this particular discovery and this particular location,” Bailey said.
“I cannot speculate further in terms of where it may have originated.”
It’s also strange that while CFIA has a genetic “fingerprint” of the Alberta GM wheat it doesn’t know its name.
“The GM wheat has a genetic background that does not match any currently registered wheat in Canada,” Heather Shearer, CFIA’s acting national manager of plant biosafety, told reporters. “This is a good thing. This means that this wheat is not present in the Canadian seed system. This is not a Canadian variety of wheat. And it is also not present from the testing that we have done along with the Canadian Grain Commission and not present in the Canadian grain supply.
Between the CFIA and the CGC we have approximately 450 wheat varieties on file. This is not a match for any of those 450 wheat varieties.”
Jordan said the wheats Monsanto experimented with in Canada were AAFC varieties. She said AAFC was also adding Monsanto’s glyphosate resistance gene to its own wheats. In either case CFIA would know the names of those wheats and could identify them.
Shearer said “this trait could not have arisen naturally,” so how did Monsanto’s gene get into a wheat that’s unknown to Canadian officials?
“It’s a very good question, and one that we have asked ourselves,” Bailey said. “So let me be very clear. We know what the fingerprint of our wheat is but we can’t put a name to it… but what is important is that we can identify it at the fingerprint level. We can find it if it’s mixed with other grain so we can understand how to isolate and control it and separate.”
CFIA not knowing how this GM wheat got to where it was found, is a concern, Lucy Sharratt of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), said in a news release. CBAN opposes genetic engineering.
“We’re relieved this is an isolated contamination case but we’re concerned that the government couldn’t determine how it happened,” Sharratt said. “Without knowing the cause, contamination could happen again.”
In 2004 faced with growing opposition from farmers, marketers and bakers concerned by consumer distrust of GM wheat, Monsanto shelved GM wheat in Canada and around the world.
“This decision was based on discussions with all of the relevant regulatory authorities, and we have mutually agreed that withdrawing the submissions is the appropriate course of action at this time,” Monsanto Canada said in a statement June 18, 2004.
“These actions are in keeping with our recent announcement to defer commercial development of Roundup Ready wheat until other biotechnology traits in wheat are introduced.”
Most of the world’s canola, corn and soybeans are GM. And there’s no evidence that GM crops are unsafe for human consumption. Still many consumers remain wary. However, that’s expected to change as world population rise requiring increased wheat production, and if GM new traits result in benefits for consumers and the environment.