GM wheat contamination incident a reminder of need for better regulation
On June 14, 2018, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) released information about an incident in Alberta where a small patch of unapproved genetically modified wheat was discovered. The wheat plants have a glyphosate resistant herbicide tolerance trait that was developed and tested by Monsanto in open-air field plots fifteen to twenty years ago. The nearest test plot site is over 300 kilometers from where the contamination incident was discovered. The exact identity of the wheat is unknown. When field trials were approved the CFIA did not require full genetic characterization of the experimental lines containing the genetic modification. The CFIA does not know, and is unwilling to speculate on how the experimental seed ended up growing on an access road to an oil rig in southern Alberta 14 years after Monsanto withdrew its application for approval of genetically modified wheat.
“We are relieved that this GMO wheat incident was discovered and action was taken quickly to prevent contamination of Canada’s commercial wheat stocks and seed supplies,” said Terry Boehm, chair of the National Farmers Union Seed Committee. “This is a close call, which we hope will not result in lost markets or lower prices for wheat.”
This incident is a reminder of the serious risk to market access and potential devastation of farmers’ incomes that have been put in motion by the CFIA when it allowed field-testing of genetically engineered crops. Back in 2004, the National Farmers Union called for an end to secret, open-air field tests of genetically engineered crops in Canada. Since 2000, the NFU has maintained that companies that are promoting genetically engineered crops such as Monsanto (now Bayer) must be held responsible for losses incurred by farmers as a result of contamination incidents.
“The CFIA went ahead with open-air trials, assuring farmers that their protocols for isolating genetically modified plants from the rest of agriculture were adequate. Today we see that an escape has happened, and that the regulatory process in place in the late-1990s and early 2000s did not even require biotech companies to provide the CFIA with full information about the plants they were testing,” continued Boehm.
Wheat is still a multi-billion dollar crop for Canadian farmers, and a staple food for a large part of the world’s population.
Speaking of Monsanto’s application for approval of glyphosate-resistant GMO wheat in 2001, former NFU President, Stewart Wells said, “We can’t afford to have Ottawa gamble with wheat, Canada’s largest export crop and a staple of the food supply worldwide.”
Today, Boehm said “The CFIA did gamble, and continues to gamble by allowing open-air testing of genetically modified wheat. We may have dodged a bullet this time, thanks to observant and responsible workers who spotted the wheat that survived spraying with glyphosate and the civil servants who looked after testing and monitoring to ensure this is an isolated incident. But now would be a good time to stop open-air testing of genetically modified wheat to prevent potentially more serious incidents in the future.”