GM wheat con­tam­i­na­tion in­ci­dent a re­minder of need for bet­ter reg­u­la­tion

The Southwest Booster - - OPINION - NA­TIONAL FARM­ERS’ UNION

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.”

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