By Tim Kalinowski
While the discovery of herbicide-resistant genetically modified wheat growing wild near a roadside in southern Alberta is concerning, Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat Commission and Alberta Barley Commission, says it is not cause for undo alarm.
“A small number of plants were found along a roadside access road in southern Alberta going out to an oil well, and adjacent to a farmer’s field,” states Steve. “The plants were not found in the farmer’s field. However, CFIA did extensive testing of the crop land of the farmer in question and his bins. They have subsequently been monitoring for any evidence of genetically modified wheat in the handling system, and they haven’t found anything. We are confident that is going to be proof enough to convince our trading partners to resume accepting our wheat.”
Steve says South Korea and Japan are two markets which are particularly sensitive about genetically modified crops, and he was not surprised they chose to close their borders temporarily to Canadian grain.
“When, in fact, we had GM wheat events in the U.S. on three different occasions in recent years,” says Steve, “they took similar action, which was temporary until they could be convinced there wasn’t any evidence of genetically modified wheat in their handling system. We suspect this will play our in a similar way.
“I would say having it happen at this time of year is less disruptive then it would have been in the peak shipping season during the winter season … As of right now, there has been relatively little disruption to the market.”
Scientists have confirmed the variety of wheat found originates from a genetically modified germ Monsanto was attempting to grow in the late 1990s. Steve says no one yet, to his knowledge, has discovered how the wheat came to be where it is, especially since those original trials were conducted on a test plot over 300 km away from the location of discovery.
“How those seeds got there is a definite source of interest,” confirms Steve, “and I think the scientific community will look into that. I don’t have a theory on it other than to suggest that seeds can certainly travel distances and re-grow, but how they might have been transported is a question which has not been answered.”
He adds the wheat has been tested and deemed safe for human consumption, and therefore poses no health and safety risk to the public.
Steve confirms this is the first instance of genetically modified wheat being found uncontrolled this way in Alberta, but feels this incident is minor in nature compared to the Triffid flax crisis back in 2009.
“In 2009 we did have Triffid flax,” he recalls, “which was a genetically modified flax variety which was being developed and was close to commercialization. Then when the European Union indicated they wouldn’t accept genetically modified flax, the research and production of seed was halted. But some small amounts of Triffid flax showed up in the handling system, and I think that was a case where it was much closer to being commercialized and there was seed being produced.
“Over a period of time, we were able to convince the European Union that we were not growing genetically modified flax, but there was an extended market disruption in that case.”