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.


| July 2, 2013


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.

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