The US Department of Agriculture is investigating the appearance of unapproved genetically engineered wheat plants on a farm in Oregon. The seeds, developed by Monsanto, are resistent to Roundup herbicide and were tested in large swaths across the US from 1994 through 2004 but are not approved for mass production.
The farmer in Oregon tried, unsuccessfully, to kill the wheat that was growing like a weed in all the wrong places. Mindboggled, he later sent samples to Oregon State University for testing, which found the Roundup-resistant gene. The resistant strain apparently escaped the protocols set up by US regulators to control it, which has set off concern among environmentalists and consumers alike as the US is currently embroiled in a controversial GMO labelling battle.
"These requirements are leaky and there is just no doubt about that. There is a fundamental problem with the system," Doug Gurian-Sherman, scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientiststold Reuters. Indeed, a 2005 report by the Office of Inspector General for the USDA criticized government oversight of field tests of GMO crops and listed 21 "major incidents of noncompliance" from 1995 through 2011, five of which involved Monsanto.
Government records show Monsanto conducted a minimum of 279 field tests of herbicide-resistant wheat on over 4,000 acres in at least 16 states from 1994 through 2004. "Probably what happened is it got mixed in with a farmer's field eight years ago and has been there ever since," Jim Shroyer, a wheat agronomy expert at Kansas State University told Reuters. "That is the main reason we here in the top wheat state did not want Roundup Ready. You can't get rid of it.”
In a statement, Monsanto tried to quell concerns, saying that, "There is considerable reason to believe that the presence of the Roundup Ready trait in wheat, if determined to be valid, is very limited," according toThe New York Times.
The discovery will directly impact the global wheat export market if investigation conclusions are grim, with major wheat importers China, the Philippines and Egypt monitoring the situation. Japan and South Korea have already canceled tenders to buy wheat from the US as a result of the discovery. The European Union, which has a "zero tolerance" policy for genetically-modified crops, warned its 27 nations to increase testing and vowed that if tests returned positive results, the shipments would not be sold, The New York Timesreports.
"The recommendation right now is to not panic," said Mike Flowers, extension cereals specialist at Oregon State University. "We really need to let the investigators do their jobs and get more information before people panic. We don't know if it's widespread. Right now, we know it's in one field." The ensuing panic is a result of the fact that there is limited research on the long-term health and environmental effects of genetically-modified crops. Unlike soy and corn, GM wheat has not been approved by the FDA, and Monsanto abandoned its efforts to introduce GM wheat to the market back in 2004 after global opposition.
Now, Monsanto, which is regularly the subject of protests and scrutiny, most recently seen at global "March Against Monsanto" events last week, is not the only one under the microscope. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is responsible for keeping unapproved GMOs out of the food supply, however it is being criticized for its lax policies. “The question is why APHIS does not tighten its procedures for field trials. It’s incredibly lax, whatever APHIS may try to say,” Bill Freese, science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety toldBusinessweek. As a result, Greenpeace is calling for a ban on field trials to prevent the spread of GE crops, despite the fact that Monsanto and other manufacturers have repeatedly assured that, "GE wheat will not contaminate conventional or organic wheat because it is predominantly self-pollinating."