Canada’s GM wheat lesson highlights biosecurity

Henry Wells, June 26, 2018

A TEMPORARY ban by Japan on imports of Canadian wheat is the latest lesson to grain exporters that biosecurity can be taken none too seriously.

The ban has come about because a few heads of wheat found on a roadside in Canada tested positive for traits of genetic modification (GM).

Once the results were proven and appropriate notifications made, Japan cancelled the importation of Canadian wheat until further notice, in spite of clear findings from scientists that GM wheat had not made it into the food chain.

The Edmonton Journal in Alberta last week reported that Korea followed Japan’s lead and also banned Canadian wheat imports.

It’s a real-world example of the impact a biosecurity scare can have on precious trade.

Timeline of the incident

The knowledge of this unusual finding has been running for about six months now.

Detection of genetically-modified herbicide-tolerant wheat in Alberta, timeline of key activities January to June 2018. (Source: Government of Canada). (Click on figure to enlarge)

A herbicide application contractor during the 2017 growing season reported wheat plants beside an access road had survived glyphosate treatment.

Canada’s Province of Alberta confirmed in late January 2018 the wheat was herbicide tolerant.

The provincial authority notified Canada’s peak federal agency responsible for plant protection, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

CFIA conducted tests to determine why the wheat survived; it found the wheat was not only herbicide tolerant but also genetically modified.

GM wheat is not authorised in Canada, nor authorised in any country for commercial production.

The CFIA, a science-based regulator committed to being transparent and accountable, has published extensively on the event.

“We will continue to work with the landowner to monitor the area over the next three years to help prevent any GM wheat from persisting,” CFIA said in a statement.

It also said GM wheat was not approved or authorised for commercial use in Canada, and that the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) confirmed this GM wheat had not been seen previously in the CGC’s records of grain shipments.

The CFIA reported the CGC and the CFIA had conducted scientific analysis and confirmed the wheat plants found in Alberta were not a match for anything authorised for sale or for commercial production in Canada.

“We may never know how this GM wheat came to be present on an access road.

“What we do know is that this GM wheat finding was very limited in scope and that the CFIA followed all plausible leads that may explain its origin.

“None of these leads brought forward any further reasonable avenues, including that there was any wrong-doing.

“Based on extensive scientific testing, there is no evidence that this GM wheat is present anywhere other than the isolated site where it was discovered. In addition, Health Canada has concluded that this finding does not pose a food safety risk.”

Neutral outcomes on human health

“While genetically modified wheat is not approved for commercial use in Canada, the same genetically modified trait has been approved in canola, corn and soybeans for over 20 years. 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.”

Addressing the issues

CFIA has reassured the public on its website that Canada’s wheat is safe, saying:

  • Canada’s wheat farms have established a strong reputation as efficient and reliable suppliers of safe, high-quality products.
  • There is no evidence that this unauthorised wheat has entered the food or animal feed system or that it is present anywhere else.
  • The wheat found is the first and only finding of its kind in Canada and is not a match for any registered seed variety in Canada.

CFIA statement about protecting market access were summarised as follows;

  • The Government of Canada is working closely with our key trading partners to verify that they have the information they need to keep markets open to minimise any impacts that could result from this event.
  • We are taking all necessary actions to help stakeholders make informed decisions.
  • The Canadian Grain Commission will continue to monitor all bulk wheat export shipments. Grain samples have been and continue to be tested to verify that they only contain wheat that conforms to bulk export shipment regulations.
  • We are ready to answer any technical questions and offering to assist partners

Chronicle of investigating the farm and farm practices

Having identified the unknown wheat’s genetic modification and developed a test to detect it, the CFIA continued to systematically explore leads to determine the source and the potential extent of the unauthorised GM wheat plants on the access road where they were discovered, and at the farm operation that owns this land.

On April 20, 2018, the CFIA held its first in a series of meetings with the landowner to discuss the history of the land near the access road, the crop rotations on all fields they farm, the agricultural practices on the farm, as well as the location and contents of any materials in storage. The CFIA conducted significant onsite sampling and testing of all wheat stored on the farm and grain that had wheat present. These inspection activities extended to the entire farming operation including nine fields covering approximately 1500 acres of farmed land. All sampling activities of seed and grain were completed based on CFIA’s seed sampling protocol that aligns with International Seed Testing Association (ISTA) seed sampling procedures.

The CFIA was not able to identify anything related to the management practices of the farm that could be linked to GM wheat. The landowner owns and does not share seeding and harvest equipment. The equipment is cleaned in the field or yard and not offsite. All fertiliser and herbicide treatments are done by the landowner using typical application approaches. This farming operation plants canola, wheat, and barley. All seed samples tested negative for the GM 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. All leads were thoroughly explored.

During this same time period, the CFIA also interviewed the lease holders who use the access road. The CFIA was not able to identify anything linking the management of the roadway to the GM wheat. The lease holder confirmed that there has been no construction work done on the road in the last five years. Along the access road, there has been no ground cover seeding of the road ditches and no straw mats were used. Maintenance records for the access road indicate that wheat plants were first identified in 2017 as a weed to be controlled along the road.

On May 1, 2018, CFIA test results for the farming operation’s seed and stored grain were all confirmed to be negative for GM wheat. This finding indicates that GM wheat was not present in the farm’s 2017 harvested crops.

On May 8, 2018, as soon as the fields were dry enough, the CFIA conducted additional sampling and testing in the field along the perimeter of the discovery site. The objective was to determine whether the remains of any other GM wheat plants from the previous season were present near the site of the original finding. CFIA inspectors walked a search pattern on both sides of the access road. The access road is 500 metres long, and the search pattern extended 60 metres into the field from each side of the access road. This means that inspectors searched a 60,000 square metre area, collecting all wheat plant remains. A total of 284 wheat heads were found and collected at various distances from the access road and were submitted for testing. On May 23, these samples were confirmed to be negative for the presence of GM wheat, with the exception of 4 wheat heads, which tested positive for the specific GM wheat event (MON71200). These four GM wheat heads were located within a 0-15 metre zone from the access road. This was not surprising, given its proximity to the original find along the access road. This indicates that the GM wheat is present only in a highly localized area.

The CFIA is undertaking multi-year monitoring and the landowner is adopting mitigation measures on the field surrounding the access road to verify that the GM wheat does not persist in the area. These measures include regularly monitoring the site, destroying any wheat that may germinate during the growing season and placing restrictions on the crops that can be grown at this location. The field monitoring will continue throughout the entire growing season, i.e. following snow melt until first frost, for the three growing seasons (2018-2020) following detection. The CFIA will adjust the response and mitigation measures as required based on any potential new findings.

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