EDITOR’S NOTE: Based on information provided to Global News by the Alberta government, this story originally said the genetically modified wheat variety that was found was hard red spring wheat. This information has since been removed from the story after Global News was contacted by a government spokesperson after the CFIA told them it has actually not yet determined what type of wheat variety was found.
Japan has closed its doors to Canadian wheat but Alberta Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous says he is confident the market will reopen quickly.
Japan made the move on Friday after news surfaced that grain containing a genetically modified trait was discovered last summer in southern Alberta.
“We are suspending the tender and sale of Canadian wheat until we confirm that the Canadian wheat that Japan buys contains no GMO,” an official with the Japanese farm ministry said.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said the wheat containing a genetically modified trait was developed by agrochemical corporation Monsanto to tolerate the weedkiller Roundup.
While other crops such as corn and soybeans have been widely genetically modified to improve yield or withstand threats, GMO wheat has not been approved anywhere for commercial production because of consumers’ concerns.
How the GMO wheat was found
The CFIA said it was notified on Jan. 31 by the Alberta government about the plants surviving spray treatments.
Staffers in a southern Alberta county noticed the wheat did not die when sprayed with Roundup. The county sent samples to Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, who then forwarded the samples to the CFIA.
“When the CFIA was notified of this finding, CFIA scientists conducted tests to determine why the wheat survived,” the agency said in a statement.
The CFIA recently completed testing on the plants, which confirmed the wheat was herbicide-tolerant and genetically modified, something not approved for commercial use in Canada.
Bilous said the grains were confirmed to be GMO in February, but it took several more months to determine the exact strain and to do extensive testing to see if any of it had made its way into the food market.
“We’re very proud of our producers, our farmers, of the quality of product that we produce,” Bilous said at a news conference Friday.
He stressed there is no genetically modified wheat in the food market and no health risk.
“We want to be able to reassure the world that Canada continues to produce the highest quality wheat, that’s GMO-free and that’s safe.”
Where was the wheat discovered?
The province said the wheat was left over from an old test plot. The GMO wheat was used in several research field trials in the late 1990s and early 2000s in both Canada and the United States, the CFIA said in an incident report.
The wheat in question was found along an oil and gas lease service road about 300 kilometres away from where Monsanto’s trials were taking place.
Jamie Curran, the assistant deputy minister for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s Livestock and Crops Division, said such plots exist all over Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.
“There are historical test plots from the eighties and nineties and throughout, that are for a number research purposes — but this isolated incident was nowhere near a test plot,” Curran said.
The CFIA did not disclose the exact location of where the wheat was found, but said it will work with the area landowner to monitor the area over the next three years. The province would not say if the test plot where the wheat came from was in Alberta.
That’s worrisome to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a coalition of 16 farming, environmental and social justice groups focused on genetic engineering in food.
“We’re relieved this is an isolated contamination case but we’re concerned that the government couldn’t determine how it happened,” said Lucy Sharratt, a co-ordinator with the network.
“Without knowing the cause, contamination could happen again.”
Why Japan matters to Canadian wheat producers
Canada is one of the world’s largest wheat exporters, and Japan is the second largest purchaser of Canadian wheat, behind the United States.
The Alberta government said it exported $203 million worth of wheat to Japan in 2017. In that same year, it exported $280 million worth to the U.S., and $200 million worth to Indonesia. Bangladesh ($143 million) and Peru ($126 million) rounded out the top five list of purchasers of Alberta wheat.
Japan imported 1.4 million tonnes of wheat from Canada last year and 1.6 million tonnes the year before, said Cam Dahl, president of industry group Cereals Canada, whose members include Cargill Ltd. and Richardson International.
“Japan is a very good customer,” he said. “More than that, they are a premium customer. They are the highest grade buyer of Canadian wheat in the world.”
Losing Japanese buyers — who pay a premium for high-quality, high-protein wheat — hurts Canada and creates opportunities for U.S. and Australian wheat exporters, Dahl said.
He said he is concerned that South Korea and China may be next to suspend Canadian wheat imports. In 2016, Japan and South Korea temporarily suspended U.S. wheat imports after a similar GMO wheat finding.
Japan’s move also leaves an undetermined volume of Canadian wheat already loaded on vessels needing to find a new market, possibly at bargain rates to Indonesia or Bangladesh, Dahl said.
Kevin Bender, chairman of the Alberta Wheat Commission, said Japan’s move is concerning.
“Japan is one of our biggest wheat customers, so if they stop importing our grain, that’s a major blow to our exports of wheat. We hope that it’s very brief,” he said.
“My hope is that it would be short-lived based on, first of all, Canada’s reputation as a high-quality producer of wheat and food, our safety record, the fact that this is an isolated event.”
Bilous said there were three similar incidents in the last five years in the U.S. in which GMO wheat was detected and blocked by Asian nations. He added they were all resolved in one to two months.
Officials with Japan’s ministry of agriculture, forestry and fisheries are scheduled to visit Canada next week to seek more information, Dahl said.
“The government of Canada is working with its key trading partners to ensure they have all the necessary information and are relying on science-based evidence to limit market disruption,” Global Affairs spokesman Jesse Wilson said in a statement.
“Temporary market closure is a standard protocol for the Japanese,” Wilson said.
— With files from Reuter’s Yuka Obayashi in Tokyo and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, and Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press