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Pacific Northwest GMO Wheat Remains a Mystery
The stories are eerily alike. Each begins with a wheat farmer spraying weed killer on a fallow field and noticing some volunteer wheat that survived what should have been a fatal dose of herbicide. The USDA never found how an experimental GMO variety by Monsanto ended up on a farm in eastern Oregon in April 2013. It may be just as stumped by 22 stalks of a sister strain found recently in Washington state.
Before disclosing the new incident, USDA worked quietly for six weeks to first verify that the wheat in Washington state was a Monsanto strain, and then it begin testing all the wheat grown on the farm. It found no contamination. It announced the matter on the same day President Obama signed a law that would require disclosure of GMO ingredients in food.
“On June 14, a farmer reported to USDA that a small number of wheat plants growing in an unplanted field on his property had survived treatment with glyphosate,” says a USDA chronology. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which regulates biotech crops, says it “continues to analyze this incident.”
Unlike in 2013, disruption to U.S. exports was expected to be short-lived. Monsanto developed and USDA validated a screening test that countries such as Japan and South Korea (the two major customers for wheat from the Northwest) can use on their imports. Early testing found no unapproved wheat.
USDA closed its Oregon investigation as “an isolated incident” after 15 months and “after exhausting all leads.” The review included 291 interviews of wheat farmers, elevator operators, crop consultants, and field test plot researchers. The report runs nearly 13,000 pages.
APHIS spokesperson Andre Bell says Washington State “is a minor incident involving only 22 volunteer plants. USDA routinely handles these types of incidents without formal investigations.” He adds, “USDA has not determined how these (genetically engineered) wheat volunteer plants grew on this one fallow field in Washington State.”
Monsanto shut down its GMO wheat experiments in 2004-2005 in a process that was “rigorous, well documented, and audited,” says a company spokesperson who declines to speculate on how its seeds sprouted on the Washington state farm. GMO wheat is not approved for sale or cultivation anywhere in the world. Theories abound about the incidents in the Northwest, ranging from benign (deer or other wild animals spreading seeds) to sinister (anti-GMO activists sowing discord).
“No proffered theory really makes much sense,” says Val Giddings, former biotech industry leader. “It seems a genuine mystery.”
Biotech skeptics such as the Center for Food Safety say the incidents show GMO contamination is inevitable.
Giddings says USDA should deregulate GMO wheat altogether because the transgenetic material in the varieties is safe.
The government launched an update of its “coordinated framework” of biotechnology regulation, jointly administered by USDA, FDA, and EPA last year with a goal of action in 2017.