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GMO wheat contamination raises fears of export disruptions

By Hank Schultz , 31-May-2013
Last updated on 31-May-2013 at 16:59 GMT

USDA regulators have confirmed that unauthorized GM wheat has been found growing in a field in Oregon, raising concerns that wheat exports could be negatively affected.

The Roundup Ready wheat, a Monsanto variety, has not been approved for planting in test plots since 2004 and has never entered commercial production. How it got into the field of a farmer who discovered it by happenstance, remains a mystery.  A second field planted by the same farmer showed no GM plants.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) launched an investigation after wheat plants survived being sprayed with Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide (active ingredient glyphosate). Some of the plants didn’t die, so the farmer had them tested. Analysts at Oregon State University confirmed the presence of GM glyphosate tolerance traits in the wheat. So far no data on the levels of contamination have been released, and there is no evidence that contaminated wheat grains have entered the market.

GM dominates in corn and soy

Most of the corn and soybeans grown in the US are from genetically modified seeds;  as much as 88% of the corn and 95% of the soybeans grown in the US are GMO varieties, according to US certifying group The NonGMO Project. But those crops are, for the most part, fed to animals or made into food ingredients;  wheat, by contrast, is consumed mostly directly by people. The FDA assessed GMO wheat in 2004 and found no particular safety concerns.

Reaction from opponents of genetically modified organisms was swift and unequivocal. One of the key concerns is how the news will affect the export picture.  According to officials in the USDA, countries that import a lot of US wheat, such as Japan and Mexico, have been notified.

“It’s probably a case of genetic trespass or genetic contamination from another field where testing was going on,” said Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now!.

“It probably wasn’t deliberate. This is probably a left over remnant of those genes left over in a field.  That’s even more alarming to me than if it was deliberate. It is a real threat to the economic livelihood of the wheat farmers in Oregon,” Murphy told FoodNavigator-USA.

GMO wheat has been tested in various locations in the US, the last time in 2004 when Monsanto suspended development of the variety. According to the USDA, the last test plot of that type of wheat in Oregon was grown in 2001.

Increased uncertainty for exports

“What’s really troubling is that we don’t know how it got in there, and how widespread it is. The real problem is the added uncertainty for US crops,” said Steve Hoffman, a longtime non-GMO advocate and principal of Compass Natural Marketing. “Japan has already put a halt on the purchase of wheat from the US.”

In a statement  Monsanto said it is cooperating with the investigation and believes the contamination to be very limited in extent.

"Over the past decade, an annual average of 58 million acres of wheat have been planted in the United States. This is the first report of the Roundup Ready trait being found out of place since Monsanto’s commercial wheat development program was discontinued nine years ago," the company said.

Rice contamination

The incident evoked uncomfortable memories of the 2006 incident in which genetically modified strains of rice owned by Bayer CropScience contaminated the US rice supply. The incident caused extensive export disruptions and price volatility and cost US farmers millions of dollars.  Bayer eventually agreed to pay $750 million to settle the claims of about 11,000 farmers.

“An urgent investigation needs to try to understand how the GM wheat came to grow in Oregon, and a swift and thorough cleanup is needed to prevent the contamination spreading – if it hasn’t already. Port authorities right across the world need to be on alert and closely monitor US wheat shipments to ensure all GM wheat is detected and prevented from entering the market,” said Pete Riley, spokesman of the UK-based advocacy group GM Freeze.

GM wheat varieties are being tested in the UK, according to the group.

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