It’s a detective story. But it doesn’t start with a body. It starts last summer, with one observant employee of a private company hired to spray weeds beside a southern Alberta access road.
A small patch of plants stubbornly refused to die. On July 17, the weed company informed the country. The county told Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. July 21, agriculture staff came to collect samples. Seven stalks of wheat.
They were puzzled. Canada allows cultivation of soy beans, corn and canola genetically engineered to be herbicide-resistant. But GMO wheat isn’t grown commercially in Canada. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has never approved it. It can be field-tested, but only under rigorous conditions to prevent its spread.
On Aug. 1, the seven stalks were forwarded to the department’s plant laboratory.
The lab staff couldn’t assume they were dealing with herbicide-resistant wheat. The person applying the spray might have missed a patch. Rain might have washed the weed-killer away. So they grew new seedlings. Then they tested their new wheat.
It still wouldn’t die.
It took until January for the provincial lab to determine the wheat was really herbicide-resistant. On Jan. 31, Alberta notified the CFIA. But it wasn’t until Feb. 12 that the CFIA started its own genetic tests on the rogue wheat.
That’s when things got weird.
When the CFIA did its DNA analysis, it discovered the wheat didn’t match any of the 450 varieties registered in Canada.
There have been three recorded incidents in the United States of the unauthorized release of genetically modified wheat. The Alberta wheat didn’t match those, either.
The wheat contained some genetic elements that matched a GMO variety field-tested in Alberta by Monsanto in 2000. But the CFIA determined the closest test site would have been at least 300 km away from where the sample was found.
And the wheat plant itself didn’t match the Monsanto test variety. In fact, the CFIA says, it has yet to find a plant anywhere that matches this one.
So where did it come from? We still don’t know.
That’s the problem. If we can’t give our trading partners sufficient assurance we have this under control, our export markets are at risk.
GMO wheat isn’t dangerous to human health. It isn’t “banned” in Canada because it’s risky to eat it. This isn’t like finding mad cows. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is fatal to humans. GMO wheat can’t hurt people.
The threat it poses is economic.
This wheat wasn’t in a farmer’s field. It never entered the food chain.
The CFIA has done a bunch of testing since. It hasn’t found any other GMO wheat in the area. Nor has it found any evidence of contamination in any wheat harvested last year.
Nevertheless, when the CFIA finally revealed this news last week, Japan promptly closed its markets to all Canadian wheat. South Korea followed suit this week.
Last year, Japan bought $203 million worth of Alberta wheat. That made Japan the second-most lucrative market for Alberta wheat, after the U.S. In 2016, Japan was actually our biggest customer, buying even more wheat than the Americans.
South Korea is a far smaller market, but an important emerging one.
Losing market access is no small matter. When the Japanese banned Canadian beef after cows with BSE were found in Alberta, it took a full decade to get those trade barriers lifted.
So why did Japan slam the door now?
Well, Japan does grow wheat domestically, and it has a powerful protectionist farm lobby. Yet it’s also hugely dependent on imported wheat.
Fear of genetic modification? Maybe. But Japan allows plenty of other GMO food products, especially soy beans.
Perhaps the biggest issue is fear of the unknown.
We don’t know where this wheat came from, if it somehow mutated or cross-bred with wheat that “escaped” from a test site, if it blew in from parts unknown.
We don’t know how long it’s been out there. And I don’t imagine it instilled much confidence in foreign customers to learn we found this wheat a year ago, and only announced that finding last week.
That’s the true risk of experimenting with GMO seeds — not that they can hurt us, but that we may not be able to control their spread nearly as well as we imagine we can. And as long as some people fear or oppose GMOs, irrationally or not, that’s a huge problem for our international reputation.
The Canadian and Alberta governments seem remarkably keen to minimize the issue. And at a time when world trade relations are fraught, when we need more non-American foreign markets, when the Trans Pacific Partnership is still in its infancy, that’s perhaps understandable.
But we can’t just tell our trading partners our wheat is safe and pure. We’d better be able to show them.