What we know (and don’t know) so far about the GM wheat discovery in Alberta

(File photo)

When you look at the scope of Canadian agriculture, the discovery of a handful of wheat plants containing an unapproved genetically modified trait growing on a remote site in southern Alberta last summer is a testament to the rigour of the Canadian regulatory system.

First and foremost, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says none of the wheat, found on the side of an access road to an oil well in a field, made it into the grain handling or seed system. The plants did not pose any human or animal safety risk, at any time.

However, there is concern about what the case means for export demand for Canadian wheat from customers such as Japan, South Korea, China, and the EU, who can be extremely sensitive to this type of issue. (Japanese officials are coming to Canada this week to gather more information, after their government halted purchases from Canada following the GM wheat news last week. South Korea announced Monday that it is also suspending purchases of Canadian wheat.)

There’s also room for plenty of speculation, because at this point, it’s not known how the plants made it to this site in Alberta.

Unapproved GM wheat plants discovered in Alberta

Here’s what we do know about the GM wheat plants that were found:

  • It’s a small number of plants. Seven were taken for testing, and the rest were destroyed.
  • They contain a GM trait or ‘event’, which matches a Monsanto event (MON71200). This event was field tested in Canada from 1998 to 2000, according to company spokesperson Trish Jordan. The company dropped it from its research in the latter years of its glyphosate-tolerant wheat program, which ended in Canada in 2004.
  • Monsanto also tested this event in wheat in the U.S., confirms Jordan.
  • It is not the same event found in the three unapproved GM wheat discoveries in the U.S. (Oregon in 2013, Montana in 2014, and Washington in 2016.)
  • So far, the CFIA has been unable to identify the type of wheat. The plants do not match any of the 450 registered varieties in Canada. It’s also not the same type of wheat that Monsanto tested the trait in in the early 2000s. Jordan says Monsanto used AAFC wheat germplasm for its Canadian glyphosate-tolerant wheat program.
  • The nearest trial site where Monsanto tested this event was located hundreds of miles away from where these plants were discovered, according to CFIA officials.
  • According to the CFIA, the plants were discovered and reported to local authorities by a custom applicator after they survived an application of glyphosate last summer. Alberta’s agriculture ministry informed the CFIA about the case in late January after conducting its own testing.
  • The CFIA says none of the wheat made it into the grain handling or seed system.
  • There is no human or animal safety risk.

Here’s what we don’t know:

  • The basic question — where did these plants come from? How did they get to the side of this access road? The Oregon finding was ruled as an “accidental or purposeful mixing” of seed.
  • What type/variety of wheat is it?
  • How did the trait get into this variety?
  • Could this happen again?

Plenty of theories have been shared in coffee shops and on social media over the last few days, and hopefully the CFIA can provide more information in the coming weeks. There is a chance, however, that we’ll never know the answers to some of these questions.

To get some insight into the trait that was found and Monsanto’s perspective on the situation, we spoke with Trish Jordan, public and industry affairs director for Monsanto Canada. Here’s our conversation:

 

Kelvin Heppner

Kelvin Heppner is a field editor and radio host for RealAgriculture and RealAg Radio. He's been reporting on agriculture on the prairies and across Canada since 2008(ish). He farms with his family near Altona, Manitoba, and is on Twitter at @realag_kelvin. @realag_kelvin

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