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Genetically modified wheat: Oregon growers shocked at discovery, seek to reassure export markets

Pacific Northwest wheat farmers are counting on their longterm relationships with Asian buyers to ride out the turmoil begun when wheat carrying an unapproved "Roundup Ready" gene was discovered growing in an eastern Oregon field.

While they await completion of an investigation by the federal Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, farmers acknowledge the concern over genetically-modified wheat may undermine customer confidence in the quality of their wheat or lead to expensive testing protocols.

Farmers hope the investigation is finished before the Northwest harvest begins in early July, and said APHIS has now assigned 15 investigators to the case, up from nine.

"That means they're hearing the urgency of the matter," said Brett Blankenship, an eastern Washington farmer who is secretary-treasurer of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

"It seems painfully slow," Sherman County grower Darren Padget said of the investigation. "But I would rather rather wait and make sure we get the right answers."

Up to 90 percent of the soft white wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest is exported to Japan, South Korean, Taiwan and other Asian nations, where it's primarily used to make noodles and crackers. Those countries and and the European Union have made it clear they don't want to import genetically-modified food, despite U.S. assurances that it is safe.

Conventional farmers generally support continued biotechnology research, but oppose genetically-modified wheat because their customers don't want it. Monsanto Co. developed a wheat variety that resisted glyphosate, the key ingredient in its Roundup herbicide, and field tested it in 16 states, including Oregon, from 1998 to 2005. The last Oregon trials occurred in 2001, according to federal agriculture officials, and Monsanto ultimately withdrew its application to have GM-wheat approved.

That's what deepened the mystery when an unidentified eastern Oregon farmer reported in April that scattered "volunteer" wheat plants that popped up in a 125-acre field didn't die when he sprayed them with glyphosate. Oregon State University confirmed the plants carried a gene that conveyed herbicide resistance, and APHIS researchers identified the plants as the variety Monsanto had developed for testing.

In meetings with reporters in Portland Tuesday, a half-dozen wheat growers and Oregon Wheat Commission officials said the discovery was a shock.

"The conversation was, quite literally, 'This is impossible,' " said Blake Rowe, chief executive of the wheat commission. "I can't tell you how many times I heard that this is so improbable, this has got to be a bad test."

--Eric Mortenson--Scott Learn Copyright 2013 OregonLive.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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