I live in Oregon. I was born and raised in Oregon. My insides go all funny whenever I’ve been away and I return to Oregon. I am closely following this current GM wheat incident and am somewhat concerned about what it might mean for the state I proudly call home.
There have been a lot of articles read and quoted, links shared, comments tweeted, piles of information batted about from big and little news sources nationwide. In my quest to learn all I can, I decided to narrow my focus primarily to our local paper The Oregonian and its online twin OregonLive and the journalist covering these stories as they unfold, Eric Mortensen.
On Sunday I read seven different Oregonian articles, along with a smattering of articles from other sources, and came up with my own summary of what has transpired so far, what might be expected to happen in the future, what is at stake and after all of that, will end with a few of my own thoughts on the matter.
An unnamed farmer near Pendleton was preparing a field for planting, which typically involves using Roundup, or other glyphosate product, for weed and volunteer plant eradication. But in this case, the volunteer wheat plants didn’t die, a clear indication that they could be Roundup resistant, a particular class of GM crops. On April 30 the farmer contacted an Oregon State University researcher and supplied plants for testing. “Roundup Ready Quick Test Strips” and genetic analysis were used to determine that the plants were, indeed, transgenic. On May 3, OSU contacted the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) arm of the USDA, which confirmed the findings and initiated the federal investigation.
To date, no genetically modified wheat has been approved for US farming. Officials from the USDA said the wheat is the same strain as that which was used in legal GM wheat testing by Monsanto between 1998 and 2005 in Oregon and 15 other states. Interestingly enough though, the last Oregon test was concluded in 2001 and no tests were ever done on this particular field. Monsanto has also issued a statement insisting that the closing out process for these GM wheat field trials adhered to very strict protocols. Examples of these protocols are burning seeds, burying them six feet underground or sending them back to Monsanto. ‘No plant’ zones were maintained to prevent pollen spread and test sites were monitored for the presence of volunteer wheat plants.
Two more interesting facts that enter into the mystery are, first, Oregon State conducted a ‘gene flow’ study in 2005. Results showed that genetic traits could transfer from one wheat plant to another by, say, pollen, but the rate of occurrence was slow and the maximum range of transfer was only 120 feet. Second, and perhaps even more curious is the fact that the GM test wheat was a spring-planting kind but the mystery wheat was a winter-planting kind. Accidental seed contamination is conceivable apparently, but likely impossible to pinpoint.
The question begs to be asked. How the heck did these plants get there?
The USDA has sent nine investigators to Oregon to figure this thing out. The presence of the transgenic wheat could be a federal crime carrying a fine of up to $1 million and other penalties. There is no public USDA speculation on whether the seeds were blown there, brought there or planted directly. No other GE plants have been discovered on the 123-acre farm or anywhere else as of yet, nor is the farmer under any kind of suspicion. It was reported that he was distraught over the whole thing, has obtained a lawyer and is considered by many locals to have done the right thing in the face of personal risk.
Why all this fuss? The USDA and Monsanto insist that GM crops, including wheat, are safe to eat for humans or animals. Though some may disagree with or challenge that statement, and the issue of containment of GE crops will undoubtedly get some attention, the immediate issue here is what this could potentially do to Oregon and US wheat markets. If the mystery GE wheat is widespread, this could be a major blow to the industry as many countries around the world will not accept imports of GE foods. Depending on yield and price, Oregon’s wheat crop alone is valued at $300 million to $500 million annually.
Japan is the biggest importer of the soft white wheat grown in Oregon and Washington along with South Korea, Taiwan and other countries. Together, these countries account for 85 – 90 percent of Oregon and Washington wheat exports. The wheat is used to make noodles and crackers. Japan was the first country to react by postponing then cancelling a 25,000 ton order from Columbia Grain, a Portland grain shipper located at the Port of Portland. The cancellation is pending the results of the on-going federal investigation. South Korea has also suspended shipments. These and other countries want to require expensive DNA testing for all Oregon wheat exports.
State and federal agriculture officials, growers and shippers are deeply concerned about where this could all be headed. Anti-GMO activists are gloating and certain agencies are screaming for bans on open field testing. No one knows who will pay for the fall out. It has been suggested that Monsanto could be found liable if the industry takes a financial hit over this.
What a story so far! I’m sure more will be revealed in the coming days and weeks.
I, Julee K, am one part fascinated while one part worried by this blockbuster story. On the one hand there is the mystery of how, why, when the wheat got there. My suspicious mind wonders if it is some kind of sabotage or plot to infer that GE seeds can’t be controlled. No matter what the explanation turns out to be, it will have broad reaching consequences and somehow, I’m not seeing it as beneficial to the biotech industry. This is unfortunate for me to admit, now that I am just starting to get excited about what biotech can offer our changing planet. My worry comes from not knowing how this will impact the wheat industry not just in Oregon, but the whole US. How widespread will this turn out to be? How will markets react in the long run?
Best case scenario: The seeds were planted by an activist kook who will be justly prosecuted. Japan and the others will resume Oregon wheat imports and the incident will fade as biotechnology and our future march on.
Reuters update as of 4:59 PM, PST: An Agriculture Department spokesman told Reuters on Monday that a team of 15 is now collecting evidence and information, versus nine investigators on the ground last week. He said there are “no indications that there is any GE (genetically engineered) wheat in commerce.”
~Julee K @ Sleuth4Health
For an excellent resource page on this topic visit: Biofortified: Get the scoop on GMO wheat in Oregon
USDA: Non-approved genetically modified wheat found in eastern Oregon field
Photo Credit: Roger Ward via Flickr
This post was updated at 12:26 AM, PST.
Another great local resource: Oregongreen/Marie Bowers/Update: GMO Wheat In Oregon aka Mystery Wheat