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Loose GM wheat threatens everyone's peace

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Genetically modified wheat in a petri dish.

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There was no jubilation on the Canadian side of the border when news broke an unregistered genetically modified wheat was found accidentally growing in an Oregon farmer's field last month.

Key customers indicated they might divert their purchases to Canada if the GM wheat was found contaminating U.S. exports, but if anything, the Canadian industry was as edgy over the find as the Americans. Monsanto tested its genetically modified wheat containing the Roundup Ready gene in Canada, too. The technology was supposedly put back on the shelf in 2004, about the same time as the company withdrew from its breeding program in the U.S. because major customers were unwilling to accept it.

When those trials were over, all of the seed was supposed to have been either destroyed or shipped back to Monsanto. So how did it end up growing in an Oregon wheat field almost 10 years later -- a field that was never used in the initial field trials?

Equally disturbing was the fact it was only discovered because it was "volunteer" wheat that had germinated from seed left on the field from the previous year's harvest. The farmer tried spraying the volunteers out with glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, and they didn't die.

During those earlier trials a decade ago, the wheat had been tested by U.S. and Canadian authorities and found to be safe for consumption.

The issue is how this herbicide-tolerant wheat, which was never granted full regulatory approval and was supposedly strictly managed, leaked into the environment to surface nearly a decade later.

That mystery remains unsolved. The best Monsanto -- the company that owns the GM gene and produced the variety planted in the field the previous year --can offer so far is a vague reference to possible "sabotage."

Monsanto has faced this before. In the spring of 1997, just as the first GM canolas were being rolled out on the Canadian Prairies, there was a mad scramble to recall 60,000 bags of canola seed, enough to plant about 600,000 acres. It turned out the company had developed two genetic events but only put one through the testing and approval process. Somehow, the wrong one had been inserted into the seed sold to western Canadian farmers.

Officials haven't found any evidence so far the escaped wheat in Oregon infiltrated the commercial supply, but testing continues and is likely to for quite some time.

Although the regulatory systems in both countries don't factor in market acceptance when considering GM crops, the commercial reality is quite different. There are already lawsuits claiming farmers lost money because market prices dropped immediately following the find becoming public.

Canadian flax growers know all about the potential market fallout. In 2009, they lost millions when they were shut out of their largest markets in the EU after minute traces of a genetically modified flax, named Triffid, were discovered in export shipments.

That variety, which had been developed at the University of Saskatchewan, had been approved 10 years earlier, but never commercialized because customers didn't want it. Yet somehow, the seed found its way into the general seed supply and gradually worked its way into commercial shipments.

Attitudes toward this technology are changing. Although there is no approved GM wheat or flax in production, other GM crops -- everything from cotton, to corn to vegetables --were grown on 420 million acres in 30 countries in 2012, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

From the commercial handlers' perspective, the problem is the notion of zero tolerance for the presence of GMOs. In the age of microscopic testing, there is no such thing as zero. Work has been underway for more than a decade to find tolerances that are acceptable to the buyer and achievable for the suppliers.

Of course, from the perspective of people who don't want GMOs period, that doesn't matter. And they are still the ones calling the shots in key importing countries.

 

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2013 B9

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