The USDA announced that genetically modified wheat plants were discovered at a Montana State University research center, more than a decade after Monsanto ended field trials there.
(Beyond Pesticides, October 1, 2014) Just after announcing a close to its investigation into the illegal presence of genetically engineered (GE) wheat in Oregon, finding it to be an “isolated incident,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) opened a new investigation into another incident of unauthorized release of GE wheat, this time detected in Montana. This new report highlights the contamination threat that these materials pose to farmers and the environment, as well as the government’s failure to recognize the pervasive and persistent nature of GE contamination.
According to USDA, on July 14, 2014 it was notified that suspected GE wheat had been discovered growing at the Montana State University’s Southern Agricultural Research Center (SARC) in Huntley, Montana, where Monsanto and researchers grew GE wheat as part of field trials between 2000 and 2003. Testing of the samples by a USDA laboratory confirmed that the wheat is genetically engineered to resist Roundup. The agency states that its ongoing investigation is focusing on why GE wheat was found growing at the research facility location.
Currently, GE wheat has not been deregulated by USDA, unlike several other GE crops (corn, soybean, sugarbeets). This means that any experimental use of GE wheat must have the approval of USDA and grown under USDA guidelines. Preliminary tests show that the GE wheat found growing in Montana was not connected to the 2013 incidence in Oregon. In that case, a farmer noticed Roundup resistant wheat in his field even though GE wheat had not been grown in the state since 2001. After this discovery, Japan canceled its order to buy U.S. western white wheat, and other markets in Europe and South Korea rejected shipments. In Montana, GE wheat underwent field trials at the university facility between 2000 and 2003, and it now appears that the GE material persisted, leading to the continued contamination of fields and successive wheat crops a decade later. The Oregon and Montana cases show that experimental use (field tests) of GE material does in fact lead to long-term transgenic contamination, isolated or not.
In Oregon, USDA recently concluded its investigation and reports that this case “appears to be an isolated occurrence and that there is no evidence of any GE wheat in commerce.” However, the agency notes that it unable to determine exactly how, even though it “exhausted all leads” and that the genetic characteristics of the GE wheat volunteers found are representative of a wheat breeding program, and not a commercial variety of wheat. According to the agency, “APHIS was unable to determine exactly how the GE wheat came to grow in the farmer’s field.”
Even as the Oregon investigation came to a close, USDA continues to treat these incidences of contamination as isolated events, when the science is showing that GE material persists in the environment and contaminates crops, waterways, and induces resistant weeds and insects. The agency states that it is taking several additional steps to ensure that unintended GE wheat is not growing in other locations in the U.S. where field trials are taking place or have recently occurred. Specifically, USDA says it will inspect field trials planted in 2014, and follow-up with post-harvest inspections to ensure those conducting the field trials adhere to requirements to monitor and remove volunteer plants (plants that grow in a field following a previous harvest). The agency will also monitor GE wheat field trials that were planted in 2012 and 2013.
Wheat pollen is carried by the wind and the plant is self-pollinating. Cross-pollination can occur and increases during dry and warm weather conditions. This means that the probability of GE wheat contaminating nearby fields is predictable and expected. Farmers, both organic and non-GE operations, are severely affected by GE contamination. Farmers in these circumstances lose a price premium for the extra effort and expense taken to preserve their crop’s integrity, and they typically have no recourse but to dump the load on generic markets. Currently, Monsanto is in the process of settling a class action lawsuit brought by wheat farmers affected by the Oregon contamination episode, which forced exports to several Asian and European markets to be suspended and cost farmers millions of dollars. Monsanto has conducted 279 field trials of Roundup Ready GE wheat on over more than 4,000 acres of land in 16 states since 1994. After facing intense opposition from farmers and activists, Monsanto reportedly stopped its efforts to introduce GE wheat, but restarted extensive field trials again in 2011.
According to the Center for Food Safety, the U.S. is the world’s biggest exporter of wheat, an $8 billion business. A 2005 study estimated that the wheat industry could lose $94 to $272 million if GE wheat were introduced. Past transgenic contamination episodes involving GE corn and GE rice have triggered over $1 billion in losses and economic hardship to farmers.
For more information on the environmental hazards associated with GE technology, visit Beyond Pesticides’ Genetic Engineering webpage. The best way to avoid genetically engineered foods in the marketplace is to purchase foods that have the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic Seal. Under organic certification standards, genetically modified organisms and their byproducts are prohibited. For many other reasons, organic products are the right choice for consumers.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
Photo courtesy Beyond Pesticides