Wheat industry hopes import ban short-lived

Canada has temporarily lost one of its top wheat customers, but government and industry officials believe it will be a short-lived hiatus.

Japan has stopped buying Canadian wheat in the wake of the discovery of an unapproved genetically modified variety of wheat in a ditch in Alberta.

Japan was Canada’s third largest wheat customer in 2017, buying 1.5 million tonnes of the grain valued at $525 million. The previous year it was the top buyer.

South Korea also temporarily stopped buying Canadian wheat.

Deron Bilous, Alberta’s minister of economic development and trade, was disappointed with Japan’s decision to suspend its purchases of Canadian wheat, but he believes the country will be back in the market in the near future.

“We’re confident that the market disruption will be very short-lived,” he said.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has assured customers that GM wheat is not in Canada’s seed supply or commercial grain system and that the problem plants were isolated, controlled and destroyed.

Bilous said there have been three similar cases of unapproved Roundup Ready wheat plants being discovered in the United States in 2013, 2014 and 2016. In each case Japan closed its doors and then reopened them within two months.

“We’re not anticipating a significant or substantial disruption to our producers,” he said.

Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat Commission, hopes Japan is back in the market by harvest because Canada is going to need all the buyers it can find.

He sits on Agriculture Canada’s Crop Logistics Working Group, which estimates an 11 to 12 million tonne carryout of all the major grains. That is about four million tonnes higher than normal because of a shipping backlog and other market access issues.

Cam Dahl, president of Cereals Canada, hopes a Japanese delegation visiting Canada this week will get the answers to all of its questions by the end of the week and will be buying Canadian wheat again shortly after the visit.

“I hope it will be much shorter than two months,” he said.

Dahl said the CFIA and the Canadian Grain Commission have done a thorough job investigating the case and should be able to quickly mollify Japanese buyers.

There is a sense of urgency because ships full of Canadian wheat are on the water heading to Japan.

One answer Canada cannot provide to the Japanese is how the GM wheat appeared in a ditch along an access road to an oil rig near Strathmore, Alta.

The CFIA has determined that the rogue Roundup Ready plants collected from the ditch contain Monsanto event MON7120.

That event was field-tested across the Prairies from 1998 to 2000 until the company decided to proceed with a different event. It was grown on less than 2.5 acres of land during that time.

Trish Jordan, spokesperson for Monsanto Canada, said the company is baffled about how its trait ended up in a field 300 kilometres away from its research plots 17 years after the trials ended.

Jordan said it is possible for wheat seeds to remain viable in the soil for up to three years, but 17 years is out of the question.

Wheat is a self-pollinating plant. Pollen drift is possible but research shows it is not a threat beyond about 4.5 metres.

Outcrossing is another possible explanation but again highly unlikely. Many variables have to align for it to occur, and government regulators have implemented rules such as isolation distances to make the chances even more remote.

“Outcrossing in wheat is very, very rare. It’s very rare,” said Jordan.

“All I can tell you is this is inexplicable.”

Terry Boehm, chair of the National Farmers Union’s seed committee, said the incident is a reminder of why field trials are dangerous.

“The CFIA did gamble and continues to gamble by allowing open-air testing of genetically modified wheat,” he said in a news release.

Boehm said Canada “dodged a bullet” this time because a municipal worker diligently reported to Alberta Agriculture that the plants had survived a Roundup treatment, preventing the GM wheat from entering the handling system.

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