The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has confirmed the discovery of unapproved genetically modified wheat plants containing a trait developed by Monsanto in southern Alberta.
The isolated patch of wheat plants were found growing on an access road to an oil platform last summer, the agency said in a briefing on Thursday. The plants were reported to local authorities by a custom applicator after they survived an application of glyphosate. Seven plants were taken for testing and the rest of the patch was destroyed. The Alberta government informed the CFIA about the suspicious plants in late January.
Testing conducted since then shows the wheat contains a GM trait or “event” that was field tested by Monsanto (MON71200), but the plants do not match any Canadian registered wheat variety. The nearest trials for the trait, which Monsanto says it tested from 1998 to 2000, were located hundreds of miles from where it was found, said the agency.
“The GM wheat has a genetic background that does not match any currently registered wheat in Canada. It has a fingerprint that is distinct from any registered wheat. CFIA is continuing our work to identify the specific class of this wheat, but this work is ongoing,” said a CFIA scientist during the briefing.
The agency said it is confident it is an isolated case, and that none of the GM wheat entered the grain handling system or the seed system. The CFIA also emphasized that there is no food or animal health risk.
The CFIA has begun monitoring the location, and will continue to do so for the next three years, verifying that any GM wheat that may germinate is destroyed.
Officials in the briefing refused to speculate on where the GM plants originated, saying “there are too many variables and possibilities.”
As of late Thursday, there had not been any indications of concern from international customers, said Cam Dahl, president of Cereals Canada.
“We first became aware of this issue early this afternoon, and so we haven’t had that opportunity to reach out to customers. That is something we will be doing in the coming days, to provide that reassurance that customers can have confidence in the Canadian regulatory system,” he says in the interview below.
The CFIA also said it is willing to share a validated test for the trait with trading partners, should they request it.
According to the agency, there were 43 approved field trials in Saskatchewan and 11 trials in Manitoba involving wheat with novel traits in 2017, but none in Alberta. (Herbicide tolerance was the objective for 39 of these trials, with 32 focused on yield increases and six on fungal resistance.)
Monsanto conducted field tests with glyphosate-tolerant Roundup Ready wheat from the late 1990s into the mid-2000s, but no genetically-modified wheat has ever been commercialized in Canada or the U.S. Monsanto withdrew its application for regulatory approval in 2004. At the time, the Canadian Wheat Board was opposed to the introduction of Roundup Ready wheat due to international customers’ concerns.
Several escapes of Roundup Ready wheat have been found in the U.S., including in Oregon in 2013, Montana in 2014, and Washington in 2016. Several buyers, including South Korea and Japan, temporarily halted purchases of U.S. wheat after the discovery in Oregon.
The incidents in the U.S. involved GM wheat lines that are genetically different from the GM wheat found in Alberta, said the CFIA, noting there is no evidence linking the Alberta case to previous U.S. cases.
Listen to Cam Dahl, president of Cereals Canada, discuss the CFIA’s confirmation of several GM wheat plants in Alberta, whether there are concerns about market access, and other questions arising from this case:
Timeline (provided by the CFIA):
Summer 2017: A custom applicator in southern Alberta reports wheat plants that survived a glyphosate herbicide treatment (Roundup) to local authorities. The Alberta government collects samples for testing.
January 2018: The Alberta government confirms the wheat plants are herbicide tolerant.
January 31: The Alberta government informs the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) about finding a few herbicide-tolerant wheat plants in southern Alberta.
February 15: The CFIA confirms that Alberta’s samples are genetically modified (GM) and herbicide-tolerant.
February 16-20: The CFIA runs further tests and narrows a list of wheat lines that had been grown in research trials down to three belonging to two companies.
February 19: The CFIA informs Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and Health Canada (HC). Risk and safety assessments of the wheat begin for human health, the health of animals and the environment.
February 22: CFIA contacts both companies, including Monsanto, to obtain samples from possible wheat lines.
March 13: The CFIA rules out one company after testing its samples and determining that it is not a match for this GM wheat.
March 23: Testing by the CFIA and Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) confirms that this GM wheat does not match any of the 450 registered wheat seed varieties sold in Canada.
March 28: The CFIA confirms that the herbicide-tolerant wheat was not a match with previous incidents in the U.S.
April 6: The CFIA concludes development and validation of a testing method to detect this GM wheat.
April 6: The CFIA receives samples from Monsanto to test the other possible wheat lines.
April 8: Testing by the CFIA confirms that the wheat contained genetic elements that match an event provided by Monsanto. This event (MON71200) is not approved in any registered wheat variety.
April 9: The CFIA receives and begins testing CGC’s wheat samples from their 2017 Harvest Sample Program.
April 20: The landowner is informed of the finding. The CFIA collects information to identify possible scope and presence of this GM wheat.
April 20-25: Seed and grain samples from the landowner’s farm are collected and sent to CFIA lab to test for this GM wheat.
May 1: Results of all seed and grain samples taken on farm are negative for this GM wheat.
May 8: Wheat heads from field surrounding the access road are dry enough for the CFIA to collect and test.
May 9: HC and CFIA complete risk and safety assessments of this wheat. This trait does not pose a risk to public health, health of animals or the environment.
May 23: Testing of wheat heads is completed. Only four wheat head samples found immediately beside the access road were positive for this GM wheat. All other samples were negative.
May 24: The CFIA transitions from inspection to monitoring.
June 14: CFIA, AAFC and HC hold technical briefing.