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Unauthorized genetically modified wheat found in Alberta; Japan cancels Canadian sale

Genetically modified wheat, which is not authorized for commercial production in Canada, was discovered growing on an Alberta farm last year, officials revealed this week.

None of the wheat from the “isolated patch” made its way into the commercial system, officials said Thursday – nor does the discovery pose a risk to food safety. Still, they acknowledged that they don’t know when the plants began growing, or why.

“We cannot speculate on how it arrived,” said David Bailey of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. “What we can say with confidence is it has not left that location.”

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Nonetheless, Japanese officials Friday suspended the sale of Canadian wheat for now.

“We are suspending the tender and sale of Canadian wheat until we confirm that the Canadian wheat that Japan buys contains no GMO,” a Japanese farm ministry official told Reuters.

Officials found the plants off an access road – and not the main growing area – of a farm in southern Alberta in summer of last year. They noticed them because they survived a spraying treatment for weeds. Testing confirmed that the plants contained a genetically modified trait developed by Monsanto.

They did not say how many plants were found, only that seven were tested and the rest destroyed.

Related: Will consumers bite into this Canadian-made GMO salmon?

Read more: The future of food

Monsanto began conducting field-testing of an herbicide-tolerant wheat in Canada in 1998, but stopped in 2004 after widespread opposition. Today, genetically modified wheat is not approved for commercial production anywhere in the world.

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The officials emphasized that the plants found do not match any of the 450 varieties that are registered for trading or exporting in Canada, and thus could not have made their way into the commercial system.

Still, the incident raised questions about possible trade disruptions. In 2013, after the discovery of genetically modified wheat on a field in Oregon, several countries blocked U.S. imports. Another discovery in 2016 led to a similar block.

“Based on the extensive scientific testing, there’s no evidence this wheat is anywhere other than where it was discovered,” said Kathleen Donohue of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “We would expect our trading partners to make informed science-based decisions.”

In a statement, Monsanto spokeswoman Trish Jordan said “there are no food, feed or environmental safety concerns associated with the presence of the glyphosate tolerance, if it is found to be present in wheat.”

Still, Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator at the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, said the discovery is perplexing.

“’It’s a concern that we don’t know how this genetically modified trait made its way into these wheat plants,” she said. “Without an answer as to how this contamination happened, we should be concerned there’s the chance that it would happen again.”

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