International Agriculture News

Japan still trusts Canadian wheat system, say officials

No Canadian wheat is unloading in Tokyo or any other Japanese port after a few GM wheat plants were found growing in an Alberta ditch. But officials here say they expect Japan will soon be back in the market, thanks in large part to strong relationships built on openness and trust. Photo: Reuters/Toru Hanai

Relationships still matter when it comes to trade, and Alberta officials say those will be key in re-establishing wheat sales with one of the country’s biggest buyers.

No sooner had news broken that a small number of genetically modified wheat plants had been found in Alberta than industry reps were arranging to meet with officials from Japan, said Tom Steve, Alberta Wheat’s general manager.

“We’re doing our due diligence with them to reassure them that we grow conventionally developed wheat and that’s what they are getting,” said Steve.

In an interview June 21, he detailed a flurry of meetings that took place in the week after the CFIA announced a small batch of GM wheat resistant to glyphosate had been found in a ditch in southern Alberta last summer.

Japan is not only one of the largest buyers of Canadian wheat, purchasing 1.5 million to two million tonnes annually, but also a discerning one, paying premium prices for top-quality grain. It suspended purchases on June 15, the day after the CFIA announcement.

But even as that announcement was making news, Japanese officials were meeting with Canadian industry reps.

“We’ve had meetings with the Japanese consul general based in Calgary — we met with a group from there last Friday, my team did,” Steve said June 21. “They were curious about this issue and wanting more information and in addition to that, there were two officials from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture that were in Canada this week. They met with CFIA on Tuesday, they were in Winnipeg yesterday, and met with the (Canadian) Grain Commission and Cereals Canada, and I joined that meeting by conference call yesterday.

“And again we talked to the Japanese officials about all the work that has been done by CFIA. I believe they’re in Vancouver today touring a grain terminal. They’re going back to Tokyo with that information and we’re hopeful that within a month or so we’ll be able to resume normal shipments.”

South Korea, a much smaller buyer, also suspended purchases of Canadian wheat, but lifted that suspension on June 26, little more than a week after imposing it.

“We are in a good spot in that we are only going to see (temporary) trade action,” Cereals Canada president Cam Dahl said June 22.

When GM wheat was first found in the western United States in 2013, Japan suspended U.S. wheat imports for about a month.

“I don’t want to speculate, but I think that might be a valid guideline” for Canada, Dahl said.

The GM wheat that didn’t die when sprayed with glyphosate was found along an isolated oil platform access road in southern Alberta last summer. It contained a Monsanto trait (CP4 EPSPS) conferring glyphosate resistance, a Monsanto official confirmed.

“They don’t know how they got there,” said Alberta Wheat chair Kevin Bender. “They searched all the surrounding areas and haven’t found a trace of it anywhere else. They haven’t found it in any shipments. This is just an isolated thing. So they’re continuing to investigate how it may have got there.”

There are a lot of questions on that score.

Neither CFIA nor Monsanto knows how the trait came to be in the plants, which were found hundreds of kilometres from the nearest field trials of GM wheat varieties. CFIA officials don’t even know the name of the GM wheat — but DNA fingerprinting has determined it’s not a Canadian variety. (For more, see accompanying story.)

That’s a major puzzle, but regulators said it’s actually counterintuitively good news.

Because it’s genetically distinct from known, approved varieties commonly grown in Canada, it will be easy to spot, said Heather Shearer, CFIA’s acting national manager of plant biosafety.

“This is a good thing,” Shearer said. “This means that this wheat is not present in the Canadian seed system. This is not a Canadian variety of wheat. And it is also not present from the testing that we have done along with the Canadian Grain Commission and not present in the Canadian grain supply.”

Like Dahl, Bender and Steve said they were confident Japan would soon resume buying Canadian wheat.

“There may be some back and forth in the interim,” said Steve. “They’re a long-standing customer of not just Canadian wheat, but Canadian beef, canola, and barley. We really want to maintain that business relationship and they do as well.”

However, those countries — along with other wheat buyers and Canadian farmers — may have sharp questions about GM wheat trials here. In a surprise to many, CFIA confirmed that confined field tests of GM wheat didn’t stop when Monsanto shelved its GM wheat research in 2004.

“In answer to your question, all wheat trials conducted in the 2017 confined research field trial season contained genetically modified wheat,” CFIA said in an email. “Trait objectives in these trials included herbicide tolerance, yield increase, fungal resistance, and selectable markers.”

The National Farmers Union’s seed committee chair, Terry Boehm, is among the surprised.

“I thought there might be laboratory tests (of GM wheat in Canada), but I thought in-field test plots, that was the end of it (in 2004), but I was mistaken,” the Saskatchewan farmer said.

The farm group is calling on the CFIA to ban “open-air” testing of GM wheat and to reveal where it is and was tested, “so that farmers and other Canadians can be on the lookout for escapes, and if found, assist in eradicating them.”

“As the market harm implications are so great and the demand or interest in such a product is nil, we just don’t see why there should be open-air tests conducted at all on GM wheat,” Boehm said.

Asked if Cereals Canada supports banning confined field trials for GM wheat, Dahl said that’s a question for another time.

“My focus in the next while is really on our markets,” he said.

The CFIA is providing a test it has developed so wheat buyers can check Canadian wheat for the GM trait.

“I believe that Canada has effectively answered the questions they had,” he said.

Dahl, Bender, and Steve also said they don’t expect other wheat customers to suspend purchases.

“I think we will be OK in the EU (European Union),” said Dahl. “They are not about to take trade action, so that is very positive. Of course they are going to be testing and they will be enforcing the zero tolerance for unapproved ‘events’ (the name used for specific GM traits). They appear to be accepting the process that has been carried out here in Canada so that’s very positive.

“We’re getting good feedback from some of the other large markets. Indonesia would be an example, where again they are looking at the processes that the CFIA and (grain commission) have carried out on their inspections and are accepting that.”

Wheat sales will also continue uninterrupted to the U.S.

“We are very much in the same boat, as it were, with the U.S.,” Dahl said, referring to small amounts of GM wheat being discovered in Oregon in 2013, and Montana and Washington in 2014 and 2016, respectively.

Bender echoed those comments.

“We’re not aware of any now that might be potential (nations suspending sales),” he said. “To our knowledge, there is no indication that other countries will follow suit.”

Steve called the situation shows that Canada has a robust monitoring system and that “our regulatory system works well.”

“We’re convinced that this is an isolated incident,” he said. “There are potentially some evidence of those Roundup Ready wheat trials, but not in great quantities.”

There were no “detectable qualities in our handling systems, like the grain elevators and shipments,” he added.

“Even if there were, the wheat that was tested would be wheat that was safe for human consumption. There’s no safety issue,” Steve said.

“Genetically modified wheat was abandoned in the 2000s because of international customers like Japan that indicated they did not desire genetically modified wheat. So that was shelved and we’ve been relying on conventional plant breeding since then.”