Southern Alberta wheat farmers are concerned after Japan, Canada’s second-largest wheat customer, announced it would block all imports of the product after GMO plants were identified in the province.

The Asian nation suspended shipments on Friday pending a review of Canadian tests of the products.

On Thursday, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it found the genetically modified wheat in a few plants that were collected from where they were growing in a ditch in southern Alberta last fall.

The group said the plants were identified when they had been sprayed for weeds and survived. After they were tested, it was learned that they were genetically modified to resist herbicide.

Modified wheat has not been approved for commercial use in Canada.

Alberta’s Trade Minister Deron Bilous says it was just 12 plants that were found to be GMO and thinks the incident is isolated.

"We’re disappointed with Japan’s decision to suspend the trade of Canadian wheat and we’re working to provide them with the assurances they need to reopen their markets. While this is a very standard response from the Japanese government, we’re confident that the market disruption will be very short-lived.”

He adds that Canadian tests have shown that no genetically modified wheat made it into our food or feed systems.

“This incident poses no health risk.”

Tom Steve, general manager of Alberta Wheat Commission, says that the province’s farming industry will be able to tolerate a suspension for a little while, but it could run into problems if it runs into September or October.

“The Japanese are an extremely important customer for Canadian wheat. They buy the top quality Canadian wheat and they buy it early in the season and pay a good price for it.”

Steve says the time is now to get the situation resolved.

“Our harvest is typically September/October, so we would look to having that situation [with Japan] resolved before the 2018 harvest. If that’s the case, we see a minimal impact on western Canadian and Alberta farmers.”

Bilous says there were three similar incidents in the United States and all of those took less than two months to resolve.

He says his office is in contact with the Japanese consul-general in Alberta and he has spoken with staff at Alberta’s trade office in Japan.

“Our office is working very closely with the Canadian embassy which is in direct contact with the Japanese government.”

Bilous won’t speculate on if other countries that import Canadian wheat will follow Japan’s example, but they are working to reassure those other international partners.

“We’re very proud of our farmers and of the quality of product that we produce. We want to be able to assure the world that Canada continues to produce the highest quality wheat that’s GMO-free and that’s safe.”

How the 12 GMO plants came into Alberta is still under investigation by the CFIA.

The agency also said it will work with the landowner to monitor the area over the next three years to help prevent any genetically modified wheat from persisting.

Japan imported 1.4M tonnes of Canadian wheat in 2017 and 1.6M tonnes the year before. All of 2017’s Alberta shipments were valued at $203M.

The provincial government is already moving ahead with financial supports for grain farmers in southern Alberta, should they be needed.

(With files from Jordan Kanygin and the Canadian Press)