Discovery of GM wheat plants highlights risk

So why even announce to the world that a few plants of genetically modified wheat have been discovered on an oil rig access road somewhere in southern Alberta?

The obvious answer is that you want to be honest and transparent. Even though there’s absolutely no health risk from this GM wheat, a failure to go public with this puzzling discovery could have led to much bigger problems. News of a cover-up would be much more damaging than the actual news.

Still, there are risks with going public. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency maintains that there’s no evidence any other plants exist, and there’s no evidence of the GM wheat in seed supplies or harvested production. The agency is even making a DNA test available for importing countries to test Canadian cargoes.

However, if Roundup resistance wheat plants can show up decades after any outdoor testing and hundreds of kilometres from where the nearest test plots were located, can you really be sure there isn’t a tiny bit of seed somewhere else?

Even with a DNA test, odds are nothing will be found, but all hell could break loose if there’s even one discovery.

The paranoia is amazing. The same trait is approved as completely safe in canola, soybeans and corn, and it was also deemed to be completely safe in wheat. Of all the food safety risks in the world, this one doesn’t even register.

And yet, Japan and South Korea have both temporarily suspended shipments of Canadian wheat while they investigate.

Research on Roundup Ready wheat was halted because of this sort of ingrained market concern. Having wheat tolerant to glyphosate wasn’t worth the market backlash from many importing nations around the world.

But what if a trait was developed to provide resistance to fusarium head blight? That would be a huge benefit to both producers and consumers around the world. Would that sort of GM breakthrough be worth reopening the debate over GM wheat?

And what about the new gene editing techniques in which gene functions are turned off and on without inserting any foreign DNA? How is that technology going to be regulated? Will consumers accept gene editing as safe or will they succumb to the fear-mongering spread by anti-technology groups?

These few unexplained Roundup Ready wheat plants aren’t helpful in efforts to move forward in a logical, cautious fashion with plant biotechnology. If anything, they will contribute to even tighter rules and more impassioned debate.

It makes one wonder if this mysterious appearance of GM wheat is truly an unexplained accident or whether it involved a human element from someone wanting to support their anti-technology agenda. The whole situation seems suspicious, but alas, we will probably never know for sure.

Hopefully, this unfortunate incident will fade into history without a lot of mainstream media attention and with buyers like Japan and South Korea satisfied with the integrity of Canadian wheat. Unfortunately, a happy ending isn’t guaranteed.

The nightmare scenario is that we awake some morning to news of a major Canadian wheat customer finding minute traces of the GM trait in a commercial shipment. There would still be absolutely no human health risk, but the market ramifications could be severe.

That nightmare scenario remains improbable, but it has suddenly become a much more tangible risk.

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