South Korea halted sales the previous week, nearly four months after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) confirmed wheat plants that survived a sprayed glyphosate weed treatment were genetically modified. Samples from the wheat plants, found growing along a southern Alberta access road in the summer of 2017, were tested, narrowed to a list of wheat lines grown in research trials and compared with samples submitted by three companies.
Testing in March by the CFIA and the Canadian Grain Commission revealed the GMO wheat didn’t match any of the 450 wheat varieties sold in Canada. Testing in April revealed the Alberta wheat sample matched a Monsanto GMO wheat line (MON71200) used in multiple confined research field trials in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Canada and the United States, in both cases more than 300 miles from the 2017 Alberta discovery. Concurrent testing of seed and grain samples from actual wheat fields adjacent the herbicide-resistant roadside plants indicated no GMO wheat.
“Given the passage of time and large distances involved, there is no evidence that would explain how or if the current GMO wheat finding is linked with a previous trial,” the CFIA said in its incident report.
The agency met with the landowner to discuss the crop history and rotations near the access road where the problematic wheat was discovered and farm management practices at the operation, which included nine fields covering about 1,500 acres of farmed land.
From these meetings, the agency could discern no relation between management practices of the farm and the appearance of GMO wheat:
• Producer owns and does not share seeding and harvest equipment
• Equipment is cleaned in the field or yard and not offsite
• All fertilizer and herbicide treatments are done by producer using typical application approaches.
“This farming operation plants canola, wheat and barley,” the agency said. “All seed samples tested negative for the GMO wheat. No seed was ever sold by the landowners. There have been no confined research field trials on the site, or consultants or crop scouts who have visited the farm.”
The agency also interviewed lease holders who use the access road, along which there has been no construction, ground cover seeding or straw mats used in the past five years.
“All leads were thoroughly explored,” said the agency, which reported no indication the GMO wheat was growing elsewhere. Health Canada concluded no public health safety risk was posed.
The CFIA later revealed the modified plants were not durum wheat, the main ingredient in pastas and couscous that represents a significant portion of Canadian wheat exports.
No GMO wheat has been approved for commercial use, but Canada has approved the modified herbicide-tolerant trait in canola, corn and soybeans for 20 years after safety assessments showed no risk to humans, animals or the environment.
The National Farmers Union of Canada (NFU) has renewed its 17-year call for the elimination of open-air testing of GMO crops. The group said the potential impact on the livelihood of Canadian farmers and the nation’s economy if contamination permanently closed markets is “an unacceptable risk.”
“We sincerely hope that the Alberta incident is isolated,” said Terry Boehm, chair of the NFU Seed Committee. “How the genetically-modified wheat plants ended up in the location where they were found remains a mystery.
“However, it is clear that the test plot protocol has been inadequate to prevent an escape. The only way to prevent these incidents happening in the future is to ban outdoor testing.”
Boehm last month wrote to the CFIA requesting disclosure of current and past open-air GMO test plot locations, saying the information would aid farmers “on the look-out for escapes, and as citizen monitors, assist in the eradication of contamination risks if additional genetically-modified plants are found,” the NFU said.
The CFIA said it will “continue to work with the landowner to monitor the area over the next three years to help prevent any GMO wheat from persisting.”
That includes multi-year monitoring and mitigation efforts along the road.
The agency said field trials of genetically-modified wheat have been grown by biotech companies most years since 1998. Outdoor GMO herbicide-tolerant wheat trials were performed by Monsanto from 1998 through 2004 and field testing was done by Syngenta and BASF in 2005 and 2006. Since 2013, most of field trials took place in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In the two provinces, 54 field trials of GMO wheat were grown in 2017, including 32 by Bayer Crop Science, which completed its purchase of Monsanto last month.
South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said it will continue to test imports of Canadian wheat and flour. Canada is South Korea’s No. 3 wheat supplier after the United States and Australia.
Opportunities are opened to U.S. and Australian exporters by Japan’s ongoing suspension, said Cam Dahl, president of industry group Cereals Canada. Japanese buyers pay a premium for high-quality, high-protein wheat, he said. Japan imported 1.4 million tonnes of wheat from Canada last year and 1.6 million tonnes in 2016.
Both South Korea and Japan temporarily halted U.S. wheat imports after a similar GMO wheat finding two years ago.