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GM wheat mystery in Alberta

The discovery of genetically modified wheat in Alberta is a head scratcher

The mystery over how seven plants of GMO wheat wound up growing next to an Alberta field access road will take some time to unravel. This high-tech whodunit has regulators scratching their heads to figure out how a known glyphosate-resistance gene from Monsanto got into an unknown variety of wheat hundreds of kilometres from the nearest test site.

And to make matters even more confounding, the find comes nearly 20 years after the last known test using the gene in question.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is the agency with the lead on the file, and in a briefing late last week it revealed the finding to media and industry.

David Bailey, CFIA’s director of the Plant Production Division, told reporters the question of how the gene got where it was found last summer has been much on the minds of agency staff.

“It’s a very good question, and one that we have asked ourselves,” Bailey said.

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 trial 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 windblown 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.”

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. Its 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.”

Unknown origin

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.

“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.

The answer could be simpler than it first seems. The unknown wheat is likely an obscure variety Monsanto was working with in the early stages of developing Roundup Ready wheat, former University of Manitoba weed scientist Rene Van Acker, said in an interview June 15. Monsanto’s gene is in this wheat because Monsanto put it there.

Van Acker, who is now dean of the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph, said he experimented with Roundup Ready wheat. The variety was Bobwhite, developed by CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) in Mexico.

A Canadian Grain Commission official says the mystery wheat is not Bobwhite.

It’s unlikely Monsanto’s gene outcrossed because gene pollen is heavy and doesn’t go far, wheat is self-pollinating and Monsanto did an excellent job of monitoring its Roundup Ready wheat trials, Van Acker said.

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.”

Key dates

Summer 2017: A commercial spray operator notices wheat treated with glyphosate survived and reports this to Alberta Agriculture.

Late January 2017: Alberta confirms the wheat is herbicide tolerant and informs CFIA Jan. 31.

Jan. 31, 2017: CFIA investigation and testing begins, including testing for the variety within the commercial grain system, where none is found.

June 14, 2018: CFIA holds a technical briefing to announce the discovery, testing measures and that the variety is not within the commercial system.

June 15, 2018: Japan announces its suspending imports of Canadian wheat pending investigation of the findings.

June 18, 2018: South Korea announces the suspension of shipments of Canadian wheat and flour over the finding of GM wheat.

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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