GMO Wheat Found In Oregon Field. How Did It Get There?

May 30, 2013
Originally published on June 3, 2013 11:03 am

A farmer in Oregon has found some genetically engineered wheat growing on his land. It's an unwelcome surprise, because this type of wheat has never been approved for commercial planting.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it's investigating, trying to find out how this wheat got there. The USDA says there's no risk to public health, but wheat exporters are worried about how their customers in Asia and Europe will react.

In fact, worry about export markets is the main reason why genetically engineered wheat isn't on the market in the first place.

The biotech company Monsanto did create varieties of wheat that tolerate the weedkiller glyphosate, or Roundup — just as it created "Roundup Ready" corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. It also carried out field trials of this wheat in 16 different states.

But the country's wheat growers told the company that they did not want it.

"We are not in favor of commercializing any biotech trait unless it's gone through regulatory approvals in the U.S. and in other countries," says Steve Mercer, vice president of communications for U.S. Wheat Associates. Many countries, including some that import wheat from the U.S., are quite hostile to genetically engineered crops.

Monsanto dropped the wheat project. It never asked for government approval, and it ended its field trials of wheat in 2005.

Fast forward eight years. About a month ago, a farmer in eastern Oregon noticed some wheat plants growing where he didn't expect them, and they didn't die when he sprayed them with Roundup.

The farmer sent samples of these curious plants to Carol Mallory-Smith, a scientist at Oregon State University who has investigated other cases in which genetically engineered crops spread beyond their approved boundaries.

She found that this wheat was, in fact, genetically engineered. She passed samples on to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which confirmed her results.

Bernadette Juarez, an official with the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said in a statement that her agency is collecting more samples from the farm, conducting more tests. "We have a team of dedicated investigators working on the ground daily to figure out what's going on here," she says.

Nobody knows how this wheat got to this farm. Monsanto's last field trials in Oregon were in 2001. After all such trials, the genetically engineered crops are supposed to be completely removed.

Also, nobody knows how widely this genetically engineered wheat has spread, and whether it's been in fields of wheat that were harvested for food.

According to the USDA, even if it has, there's no danger to public health.
Still, if further tests show that this unapproved wheat has spread into the food supply, it could play havoc with wheat sales.

In 2006, traces of genetically engineered rice — also unapproved — were discovered in large parts of the American rice harvest. That discovery shut down America's rice exports to some countries. Exporters lost millions of dollars. The wheat harvest is much bigger.

Steve Mercer, from U.S. Wheat Associates, says there's no indication that this will happen to wheat. Right now, it's just a few isolated plants growing in eastern Oregon.

"We're in the process of getting in touch with all of our customers," he says. "We are going to work to make sure that they have all the information that they need to make their decisions, and reassure them that this isolated trait hasn't entered commerce."

So far, he says, those customers aren't making any decisions. They're just asking for more information.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. A farmer in Oregon has found some genetically engineered wheat growing on his land. This was an unwelcome surprise, because this type of wheat has never been approved for commercial planting. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it's investigating, trying to find out how this wheat got there. The USDA says there is no risk to public health, but wheat exporters are worried about how their customers in Asia and Europe will react to this. NPR's Dan Charles has more.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The biotech company Monsanto has genetically altered some of America's biggest crops so they can tolerate the weed killer glyphosate, or Roundup. It did this with corn, soybeans, canola and cotton. But it did not do this with wheat. It made Roundup-tolerant wheat in the laboratory, and it carried out field trials of genetically engineered wheat in 16 different states. But the country's wheat growers told the company they did not want this novel genetic trait.

STEVER MERCER: Part of the concern was export markets.

CHARLES: Steve Mercer is vice president of communications of U.S. Wheat Associates, which represents wheat growers and exporters.

MERCER: We're not in favor of commercializing any biotech trait unless it's gone through regulator approvals in the U.S. and in other countries.

CHARLES: Many countries are quite hostile to genetically engineered crops, so Monsanto dropped the wheat project. It never asked for government approval, and it ended its field trials in 2005. Fast-forward eight years. About a month ago, a farmer in Eastern Oregon noticed some wheat plants growing where he didn't expect them, and they didn't die when he sprayed them with Roundup.

The farmer sent samples of these curious plants to a scientist at Oregon State University. She found that this wheat was, in fact, genetically engineered. She passed samples on to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and yesterday, the USDA confirmed it. In a statement, the USDA's Bernadette Juarez said her agency is collecting more samples from the farm, conducting more tests.

BERNADETTE JUAREZ: We have a team of dedicated investigators working on the ground daily to figure out what's going on here.

CHARLES: Nobody knows how this wheat got there. Monsanto's last field trials in Oregon were in 2001. After all such trials, the crops are supposed to be completely removed from the fields. Also, nobody knows how widely this genetically engineered wheat has spread, whether it's been in fields of wheat that were harvested for food, for instance.

The USDA says even if it has, there's no danger to public health. Still, if further tests show that this unapproved wheat has spread into the food supply, it could play havoc with wheat sales. In 2006, unapproved genetically engineered rice was discovered throughout the American rice harvest, and it shut down practically all exports for a while. Exporters lost millions of dollars. The wheat harvest is much bigger.

Steve Mercer from U.S. Wheat Associates says there's no indication so far that this will happen in wheat. Right now, it's just a few isolated plants growing in eastern Oregon.

MERCER: We're now in the process of getting in touch with all of our customers. You know, we're going to work to make sure they have all the information that they need and reassure them that this isolated trait hasn't entered commerce.

CHARLES: So far, he says, those customers aren't making any decisions. They're just asking for more information. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.