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Editorial: Escape strategies

A small patch of wheat in an Alberta farm last summer was inexplicably found to have genetic traits that occur in genetically modified wheat. It has since been destroyed. — Stock photo
A small patch of wheat in an Alberta farm last summer was inexplicably found to have genetic traits that occur in genetically modified wheat. It has since been destroyed. — 123RF Stock Photo

It was a small patch of wheat found on a southern Alberta farm last summer, off an access road and not even in the farm’s main fields.

Yet it’s halted Canadian wheat sales to Japan, at least for the time being.

And it’s a little bit of an object lesson for those, like the Titanic’s owners, who claim their creations are firmly beyond any risk of nature.

The wheat is a mystery; when it was found, it had mysteriously survived being sprayed with herbicides. It later turned out to have genetic traits that occur in a genetically modified wheat developed for the Monsanto company.

Problem is, Monsanto did field testing of its genetically modified wheat in Canada from 1998 to 2004 and then halted the process entirely as a result of public pressure — and no genetically modified wheat is approved for commercial production.

So how, 13 years later, did the wheat appear?

Canadian officials are saying the wheat was destroyed and could not have made its way into the distribution system. They are downplaying the discovery, and with good reason: other discoveries of fugitive GMO-altered wheat have caused substantial trade disruptions when countries that don’t want GMO wheat in their food system halt sales.

It’s merely to point out that “highly unlikely” things do happen, however statistically unlikely they are in your own estimation. A GMO wheat that has not been planted in Canada in 13 years randomly pops up in Alberta. Just how unlikely is that?

What does it mean here? Well, in the Atlantic region, aquaculture operators are fond of saying that calamities won’t happen, that new salmon cages proposed for Placentia Bay are, as one company put it this week, essentially escape-proof.

Often the language looks like this statement about a genetically modified salmon hatched in Prince Edward Island: “Based on the (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s) review of these facilities, the agency is confident that the possibility for escape is highly unlikely, and that the procedures in place to monitor physical containment are appropriate.”

This is not to say that GMO salmon are about to escape into the wild at any moment, taking over rivers and lakes and feasting on swimming small children; nothing even remotely of the sort.

It’s merely to point out that “highly unlikely” things do happen, however statistically unlikely they are in your own estimation. A GMO wheat that has not been planted in Canada in 13 years randomly pops up in Alberta. Just how unlikely is that?

An unsinkable ship hits an iceberg. And sinks.

Genies, happily out of bottles, are legendarily difficult to stuff back in.

Horses get out of their stables, and closing the door after the fact — strangely — has no effect.

The time to be rigorous about potential risks is before projects are approved. Rearguard action is often too little and too late.

Begging for forgiveness instead of asking for permission is great for pushing the boundaries if you’re a teenager with overly controlling parents.

It’s not an effective strategy for protecting the environment. Or the grain industry, apparently.

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