Federal investigators are trying to determine how restricted genetically engineered wheat got into an northeast Oregon field and the scope of the unauthorized release.
It’s currently unknown whether the glyphosate-tolerant crop, which was developed by Monsanto but never commercialized, is isolated to that field or if the trait is more widespread.
Walter Powell, president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, said the grower, whose name was not released, found surviving volunteer wheat plants in a field he had recently treated with Roundup herbicide.
The field, which Powell said is in the Columbia Plateau of northeast Oregon, was being groomed for summer fallow.
The grower contacted his fieldman, who became suspicious when the Roundup failed to kill the wheat. The fieldman contacted Oregon State University weed scientist Carol Mallory-Smith, who tested the wheat and found markers of the Roundup Ready gene.
Mallory-Smith contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Further tests by the USDA confirmed Mallory-Smith’s findings.
Powell said the field was planted to winter wheat in the fall of 2011 and harvested last August.
Powell said officials with USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said in a May 29 conference call that they know where the grower purchased the seed, the variety and where the grain was sold after harvest.
The agency has nine investigators working on the case, he said.
APHIS could not be reached for comment.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture was alerted to the situation by the USDA, spokesman Bruce Pokarney said. ODA officials don’t know the identity of the farmer or the location of the field.
The discovery of genetically modified wheat is important to the Northwest wheat industry, which relies on exports to several Asian countries that have resisted the prospect of biotech wheat production in the past.
Representatives of the U.S. Wheat Associates, an export marketing organization, and the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service are communicating with overseas customers about the discovery, but it’s too early to know what the reaction may be, said Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Commission.
APHIS has said the agency “has no information that this GE glyphosate-resistant wheat variety has entered commerce.”
It’s important to note that the USDA’s Federal Grain Inspection Service has previously determined that there are no altered wheat genes in commercial markets, and that decision still stands, said Steve Mercer, the U.S. Wheat Associates director of communications.
Such declarations are periodically made by the agency in response to questions from customers and will likely be updated, he said. “They will make their judgment. We obviously can’t.”
While glyphosate-resistant wheat was never deregulated by USDA, the agency did give Monsanto permission to test the crop in more than 100 fields in Oregon and 15 other states between 1998 and 2005.
Unrestricted cultivation of biotech wheat isn’t currently allowed in any country, but the company shelved the biotech variety after growers worried about the impact on markets in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
“They tend to ask the most questions,” said Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission.
The USDA said the unauthorized biotech wheat discovery doesn’t pose a safety threat, noting that the crop was previously found to be the same as conventionally bred wheat by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The recent finding is nonetheless a “very serious development that could have major trade ramifications for Pacific Northwest soft white wheat,” said Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, in a statement.
“I am concerned that a highly regulated plant material such as GM wheat was able to escape into a crop field,” she said.
Powell, head of the Wheat Growers League, remains confident of USDA’s and the industry’s efforts.
“I think you’re going to see major efforts put forward by USDA, U.S. Wheat Associates, the terminals, growers, everybody in the supply chain to deliver what our customers want,” Powell said. “We know what our customers want, and that is what we are going to deliver.”