Farm Talk

June 4, 2013

Unapproved modified wheat threatens trade


Parsons, Kansas — Unapproved genetically engineered wheat plants discovered in a field in Oregon are threatening trade with countries that have concerns about genetically modified foods.

Japan, one of the biggest importers of soft white wheat, has suspended shipments pending an investigation into the discovery. Japan reportedly canceled a plan to buy 25,000 tons of U.S.-grown white wheat.

Sources say the European Union will also recommend its member nations test U.S. wheat for the presence of genetically-engineered material.

An unidentified farmer discovered the modified wheat when workers were trying to kill wheat plants that popped up between harvests. The farmer used glyphosate to kill the plants, but they did not die, prompting the tests at Oregon State to find out if the crops were genetically engineered to resist herbicides.

APHIS scientists confirmed the wheat plants were a genetically-modified strain field tested by Monsanto in 16 states, including Oregon, from 1998 to 2005. The variety, designed to resist Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, was never approved for planting.

Tests were also conducted in Kansas as well as in Arizona, California, Colo-rado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming.

USDA authorized more than 100 field tests with the same glyphosate-resistant wheat variety.

The last Oregon field test occurred in 2001 and agriculture officials say they do not yet know how it popped up in the Oregon field.

During the testing and application process, the Food and Drug Administration reviewed the variety found in Oregon and said it was as safe as conventional varieties of wheat.

USDA said the genetically engineered wheat is safe to eat and there is no evidence that modified wheat entered the marketplace. But the department is investigating how it ended up in the field, whether there was any criminal wrongdoing and whether its growth is widespread.

No genetically engineered wheat has been approved for U.S. farming. USDA officials said the wheat is the same strain as a genetically modified wheat that was legally tested by seed giant Monsanto a decade ago but never approved. Monsanto stopped testing that product in Oregon and several other states in 2005.

USDA officials declined to speculate whether the modified seeds blew into the field from a testing site or if they were somehow planted or taken there, and they would not identify the farmer or the farm's location.

The discovery also could have implications for organic companies, which by law cannot use genetically engineered ingredients in foods. Organic farmers have frequently expressed concern that genetically modified seed will blow into organic farms and contaminate their products.

In a statement issued by Monsanto, the company said this is the first report since its program was discontinued.

``While USDA's results are unexpected, there is considerable reason to believe that the presence of the Roundup Ready trait in wheat, if determined to be valid, is very limited,'' the company said.

USDA officials said they have received no other reports of discoveries of genetically modified wheat.

The discovery could have far-reaching implications for the U.S. wheat industry if the growth of the engineered product turns out to be far-flung. Many countries around the world will not accept imports of genetically modified foods, and the United States exports about half of its wheat crop.

Japan and other Asian nations are the top markets for Oregon wheat, a crop valued at $300 million to $500 million annually. State agriculture officials, growers and shippers are deeply concerned the issue will cause a severe market reaction.

Approximately 90 percent of the state’s soft wheat crop is exported. £