Agriculture Canada planted GM wheat in Ottawa, but never thought what might happen if Canada geese flew off with the seeds.
Photograph by: Pat McGrath , Ottawa Citizen
OTTAWA — Canada geese may have spread viable seeds of genetically modified wheat grown at the Central Experimental Farm, documents from Agriculture Canada show.
The odds aren’t high, the department says.
But the geese ate the experimental wheat last summer at the Experimental Farm. Geese are voracious eaters and leave droppings every few minutes.
The fear is that these geese may have left poop with living GM wheat seeds that could allow GM wheat to spread outside the controlled field, or even away from the farm itself.
The issue blew up on a Friday night in 2012, taking the department by surprise.
Now the Citizen has obtained internal emails, with many of the relevant details blacked out, showing the rush by federal bureaucrats to find out whether the GM seeds had flown the coop, potentially to other farms.
GM wheat is not approved in Canada. Many growers, including the Canadian Wheat Board, strongly oppose it, saying that growing GM wheat will make all Canadian wheat harder to sell in Europe and Asia.
And the last thing any grower wants is to have ordinary wheat crops accidentally mixed with the GM varieties.
This happened last month in Oregon, where a farmer discovered transgenic wheat growing on his land. He had never planted any and the source remains unknown, but Japan and South Korean briefly banned U.S. wheat imports.
Many species of plants are commonly spread when birds eat berries or nuts and then drop the seeds in their feces.
The issue seems to have come out of left field for the Experimental Farm.
On Aug. 24, 2012, an Agriculture Canada staffer wrote, in an email to her colleagues, that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) had just informed her of an incident involving an Agriculture Canada wheat researcher.
The CFIA regulates trials of experimental GM crops. Its records show that in 2012, Agriculture Canada had two permits to run “confined research field trials” of experimental wheat in Ottawa. These are outdoor trials where strict controls are intended to minimize the chance of DNA introduced by humans from escaping to the environment.
These trials are reserved for GM crops; crops where the DNA is altered through human-induced mutations (often with chemicals or radiation); or conventionally-bred crops that are so genetically different from those in the environment that they can’t be allowed to mix.
CFIA refused to answer questions about the incident Tuesday.
Agriculture Canada emails show the department had to scurry to find out whether GM wheat seeds “will survive in the goose ‘poop’.”
On the following Monday, Agriculture Canada produced a list of “talking points” designed to make the problem look minor if the public found out.
This list concludes that “the dispersal of viable seed by urban and suburban populations of Canada Geese is minimal,” and adds that the seeds are spring wheat which “would be killed by the winter frost.”
The experimental wheat was surrounded by rows of ordinary wheat in the field, a standard technique in GM tests to keep the genetically modified DNA from spreading beyond the field.
The geese ate both kinds, meaning only some of the seeds they spread were genetically modified, the talking points note.
“So in reality, only a small population of the geese probably fed on very little material resulting in much dilution …” The rest of the talking point is blacked out.
An Agriculture Canada spokesman echoed those talking points Tuesday, confirming that the wheat was an experimental variety designed to resist fungus, and adding that “the latest research indicates that there is minimal risk of dispersal of viable seeds through Canada geese droppings. Additionally, since the seeds were a spring wheat cultivar, even if the seeds were to survive a goose’s digestive system, they would be killed by winter frost.”
The experimental wheat contains a collection of genetic material called GLK1 which can help a variety of plants resist fusarium, a destructive fungus that affects many grains.
Last year Canada geese destroyed some $250,000 worth of experimental crops at the Farm. This year the Farm hired a company that uses border collies to stalk the geese and eventually drive them away