Background: GM Wheat Contamination in Canada
June 27, 2018
Documents from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are posted at inspection.gc.ca/wheatdetection
On June 14, 2018, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced that several unapproved genetically modified (GM, also called genetically engineered) wheat plants had been found in Alberta, Canada in 2017, in what the CFIA says is an isolated incident.
Several wheat plants on a road in southern Alberta survived a spraying of Monsanto’s “Roundup” glyphosate-based herbicide formulation. The plants were subsequently confirmed to contain Monsanto’s GM trait for glyphosate-tolerance. The wheat that was carrying the GM trait is not a variety registered for sale in Canada.
This escape is an isolated incident
Several GM wheat plants were found on an oil rig access road on a farm in Alberta but the CFIA did not find any GM wheat outside this area.
- The CFIA sampled and tested all the wheat stored on the farm next to the road where the GM wheat plants were discovered. Samples tested negative for GM wheat.
- The CFIA also collected and tested all the remains of wheat plants found in a 60 metre-wide zone on each side of the 500 metre road. The CFIA found four more GM wheat plants, all within 15 metres from the road.
- The CFIA and the Canadian Grain Commission also tested wheat samples collected from the 2017 harvest across the Prairies, and found no GM wheat.
- The CFIA and Canadian Grain Commission also reviewed data collected from three years of Canadian wheat export shipments, and found no GM wheat.
The CFIA concluded that the contamination was present “only in a highly localized area”, and it will monitor the site for the next three years.
This escape did not enter the food system
The CFIA is confident that this unapproved GM wheat did not enter the food or feed system.
Farmers in Canada grow registered wheat varieties and every shipment is tested for varietal purity before export. The wheat plants found in Alberta are not a genetic match for any of the registered wheat seed varieties currently grown in Canada, nor for any wheat varieties that were sent in shipments from Canada over the past three years.
South Korea resumed import of Canadian wheat and flour on June 26 after their testing found no GM wheat. Japan is also testing wheat exports from Canada.
The cause and source of the escape is unknown
The CFIA has finished its investigation into the cause of the contamination and has no answers. The CFIA says, “We may never know how this GM wheat came to be present on an access road.”[i]
The CFIA could not establish a direct link between this GM wheat contamination incident and past field tests: “Given the passage of time and large distances involved, there is no evidence that would explain how or if the current GM wheat finding is linked with a previous trial.”[ii]
The CFIA has however determined that there is no connection (no genetic match) to the previous three contamination incidents in the US with Monsanto’s GM herbicide-tolerant wheat.
“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.”[iii]
GM wheat is not approved for human consumption or commercial growing
No country has approved any GM wheat for growing or eating. Every individual GM food requires a government safety assessment before being sold for human consumption. The CFIA says, “Currently, GM wheat is not approved for any commercial use in Canada, as no company has brought a GM wheat product forward for safety assessment and commercialization.”[iv]
Health Canada says that on May 9, 2018 it “completed a health risk assessment of the finding and has concluded that it poses no food safety risk to Canadians.”[v] CBAN has written to the Minister of Health for details on this “health risk assessment”.[vi]
There are no genetically engineered wheat varieties grown or sold anywhere in the world. In 2004, Monsanto withdrew its request for approval in Canada and the US for the first-ever GM wheat (“Roundup Ready”). There are six herbicide-tolerant wheat varieties from the company BASF that the Canadian government lists as approved “Plants with Novel Traits” but these are not the product of genetic engineering; they were created through chemical mutagenesis (they are tolerant to the herbicides Imidazolinone or Imazamox).
GM wheat was field tested in Canada
The GM wheat plants found on the road in Alberta contained GM event MON71200 that was field tested by Monsanto from 1998-2000 in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Monsanto continued to field test other GM herbicide-tolerant wheat in Canada up to and including 2004 when it withdrew its request for approval of its GM “Roundup Ready” wheat. Other companies have continued to field-test GM wheats over the years.
The exact locations of experimental GM crop field trials are not disclosed in Canada (or in the U.S.). In Canada, the government discloses how many open-air trials are conducted in each province per year and identifies the crop type, the GM trait(s), and the name of the company running the test.
The CFIA could make changes to improve regulation
The CFIA says it will review this incident and “any areas identified for improvement will be pursued.”[vii]
[ii] Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Incident Report – Genetically Modified Wheat 2018, June 14, 2018. http://inspection.gc.ca/DAM/DAM-plants-vegetaux/WORKAREA/DAM-plants-vegetaux/text-texte/pnts_noncompliance_wheat_2018_report_1528903863325_eng.pdf
[iii] Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Questions and answers: Detection of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant wheat in Alberta, June 14, 2018. http://inspection.gc.ca/plants/plants-with-novel-traits/general-public/wheat-detection-2018/questions-and-answers/eng/1523593794211/1523593794476
[vi] Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, Letter to the Minister of Health, Request for information on the health risk assessment of GM wheat, June 22, 2018 https://cban.ca/wp-content/uploads/CBAN-letter-to-Health-Canada-re-GM-wheat-risk-assessment-June-2018.pdf
[vii] Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Questions and answers: Detection of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant wheat in Alberta, June 14, 2018. http://inspection.gc.ca/plants/plants-with-novel-traits/general-public/wheat-detection-2018/questions-and-answers/eng/1523593794211/1523593794476