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Wheat sector moves to reassure customers after GM wheat discovery

Industry groups and regulators all say the commercial channels remain GM free

The race is on to reassure Canadian wheat customers following the revelation genetically modified wheat was found last summer in Alberta.

Already Japan and South Korea have shut the door to shipments from Canada in the wake of the finding, a move that echoes their reaction to similar past discoveries in the U.S.

There were unapproved GM wheat releases in the United States in Oregon in 2013, and Montana and Washington in 2014 and 2016, respectively.

Those incidents didn’t result in long-term harm to American wheat exports, however, there was short-term pain.

In addition to the temporary loss of the Japanese and Korean markets, China, Thailand and the Philippines tightened inspections and the European Union encouraged member countries to increase import testing.

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,” David Bailey, CFIA’s director of the Plant Production Division, said. “We have every confidence in our system.”

He also noted though the origin of the wheat is unclear, regulator’s ability to track it is not.

“We know what the fingerprint of our wheat is but we can’t put a name to it,” he said. “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.”

In a news release value-chain organization Cereals Canada made the case for trust in the regulatory regime.

“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.”

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.

Some comfort

One issue that many have noted as puzzling is that the variety the genetic resistance genes were found in is unknown, but regulators say that’s actually counterintuitively good news.

It’s genetically distinct from known varieties that are approved and commonly grown in Canada, making it easy to spot, according to Heather Shearer, CFIA’s acting national manager of plant biosafety.

“This is a good thing,” Shearer said. “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.”

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, Bailey 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.

What remains unseen is just how long it will take to unsnarl trade in Canadian wheat to high-value customers like Japan.

Officials with Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries are scheduled to visit Canada next week to seek more information, Cam Dahl, president of industry group Cereals Canada, told the Western Producer.

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.”

Monsanto later paid more than $2 million to settle lawsuits from U.S. farmers claiming the company failed to protect the wheat market from contamination.

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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