Discovery of Genetically Modified Wheat Highlights Regulatory Failures

A farmer in eastern Oregon recently discovered that the wheat in his field has been genetically modified. The incident once again reveals the difficulty of containing GE crops and the inadequacy of U.S. policy.

By Kristina Hubbard and Neva Hassanein
July 2, 2013

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Federal agriculture investigators still haven't said how genetically modified wheat appeared in an eastern Oregon field.
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The following editorial guest opinion is reposted from The Oregonian.

The recent news that genetically engineered wheat never approved for sale was growing in an eastern Oregon field surprised many Americans, including the farmer working the land. Japan and South Korea responded swiftly by suspending wheat imports from the United States. For those of us who study these issues, this latest incident underscores, once again, the difficulty of containing GE crops and the inadequacy of U.S. policy. The federal government must heed this wake-up call and dramatically improve regulation of GE crops both before and after market approval.

How the unapproved GE wheat made its way into a farmer's field is currently unknown. What we do know is that there are many ways contamination can occur. Given that this wheat included a trait never approved for market, experimental field trials conducted by Monsanto are the likely culprit.

When companies want to develop a new GE crop, they conduct field trials before commercialization. Theoretically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees these trials, the vast majority of which are managed under a streamlined notification system. Companies simply inform the agency that tests are underway.

While Monsanto and the USDA struggle to find the source of Oregon's rogue gene, three interrelated problems plaguing the government's oversight process of field trials come into sharp relief. Our observations here are informed by a policy analysis we conducted on another GE crop, Roundup Ready alfalfa, recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Agriculture and Human Values.

First, the USDA does not impose any firm requirements on the company doing the testing. The companies devise the specific procedures by which they will try to "confine" the experimental genetic traits and thereby attempt to reduce effects on surrounding crops and the environment. The companies also certify whether their own standards are being met. In other words, they regulate themselves.

A second, compounding problem is that the government and the public lack reliable, specific information on field trials, making oversight nearly impossible. As the USDA's own inspector general noted in 2005, the agency often does not collect basic data on the test sites it approves and is responsible for monitoring, including where and how the crops are being grown and what happens to them after the trial. Thus, it would be extremely difficult for the government to monitor trials, ensure that performance standards are met and trace back the source of contamination that might occur as a result of GE experiments. This lack of basic information not only hampers the government, but also threatens the agricultural industry more generally. Farmers near field trials would never know to take their own precautions or test their crops if they wanted to. The Oregon farmer found the GE wheat growing in his field purely by accident.

This chance discovery reinforces the third, most fundamental problem: the inability to contain GE crops before and after market approval. The USDA promotes the idea of "coexistence," that is, the notion that GE and non-GE crops can exist concurrently and be managed so that neither undermines the viability of the other. Yet the agency routinely approves field trials without even assessing the effectiveness of mitigation practices designed to contain GE seed and prevent contamination of non-GE crops. Effective containment must begin at the experimental stage. Why? Because contamination happens. The Oregon case is but the most recent one to come to public attention. The USDA has approved more than 50,000 trial sites since 1986. How many undetected instances are out there?

Unlike Europe, the United States has no real coexistence policy. Our laws and regulations favor the biotech industry by overprotecting trade secrets of companies and thereby neglecting any protection of non-GE farmers' basic right to choose what grows in their fields and what they supply to their markets.

In the short term, halting existing field experiments on GE wheat is a sensible precaution, given the crop's importance, and the investigation of the Oregon case must be rigorous. To really move forward, though, Congress and the USDA must fix the rubber-stamp approach to trials. Strong requirements for preventing contamination must include enforceable (rather than voluntary) performance standards related to confinement of genetic material, as well as active investigation to ensure compliance. Regulations must also provide for full public disclosure of the GE crops being planted, and how much and where. The lack of transparency hinders the ability of non-GE farmers to take protective measures, and it thwarts meaningful public participation and independent scientific inquiry.

Without extensive regulatory improvements, the integrity of U.S. agriculture will continue to be threatened.

Kristina Hubbard is director of communications at Organic Seed Alliance. Neva Hassanein is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana.

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