Speedy disclosure necessary for respected food system

Speedy disclosure necessary for respected food system

Canadian grain officials are confident that a visiting delegation from Japan will be satisfied that Canada’s wheat system does not contain the genetically modified variety found in a roadside ditch in Alberta last summer.

Based on the testing and the resources that have been put into the investigation, there is every reason to believe that the four wheat heads found beside an oil well access road near Strathmore, Alta., are the end of it.

While the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says it does not know where the GM wheat came from, or the type of wheat involved, it has answered other questions — such as whether the wheat got into the food or distribution system (it did not), whether it made it into any shipments (again, no), whether there are any safety issues (GM traits are perfectly safe in crops) and who developed the trait involved (Monsanto). But the agency should also explain why it took almost a year from the discovery of the GM plants to the public disclosure earlier this month.

Compared to previous incidents in the United States, that is an awfully long time.

Confidence in Canada’s food system is based on science, well-established procedures and trust. The latter is always in danger if something goes wrong.

In 2013, after GM wheat was found in Oregon, public disclosure came in about a month. In 2016, after GM wheat was discovered in Washington state, the information was made public within six weeks.

What is it about Canada’s system that caused such a big delay?

The response by CFIA is that scientific analysis it conducted on tests by the Alberta government takes time.

Fair enough; to a point. This particular discovery (MON71200) was challenging because it didn’t match any of the 450 registered wheat varieties on file. Even Monsanto is mystified as to how wheat with its trait was found in a ditch 300 kilometres from its research plots 17 years after it stopped trials.

Still, Monsanto said it wasn’t provided with enough information to validate the CFIA’s findings. Would that have been useful?

As for the delay in making information public; granted, the CFIA only found out about the GM wheat from the Alberta government on Jan. 31, but that’s months after it was first found in the summer. What caused that delay? And while the CFIA’s testing was lengthy, why are jurisdictions in the United States able to test and disclose to the public about the presence of GM wheat within weeks, while it took Canada four and a half months from the time of notification to the CFIA, and a year from the time it was first discovered by a municipal worker?

As it is, only Japan and South Korea have stopped accepting Canadian wheat. If past experience is any indication, these interruptions will last only a couple of months, and fortunately, they come at a time when many farmers have already marketed last year’s wheat.

But isn’t that the issue? Surely buyers are going to wonder why they weren’t told about this situation when Canadian farmers were marketing their wheat.

Japan imported 1.4 million tonnes of Canadian wheat last year, often paying a premium for Canada’s high-quality crop, so when officials there turn to us for the best and most trusted source of wheat, we must be transparent in our procedures.

We have done well to earn buyers’ trust in the past, but Canada must continually ensure that trust is earned with timely disclosure of information.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.


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