A farmer in Oregon found a patch of wheat growing like a weed where it wasn’t expected, so the farmer sprayed it with the herbicide Roundup. Surprisingly, some of the wheat survived.
The startled farmer sent samples of the renegade wheat to a laboratory, which confirmed something that should have been impossible: The wheat was a genetically engineered variety that had never been approved to be grown in the U.S., nor anywhere else in the world.
The Agriculture Department said the wheat was of the type developed by Monsanto to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, also known as glyphosate. Such wheat was field-tested in 16 states, including Oregon, from 1998 through 2005, but Monsanto dropped the project before the wheat was ever approved for commercial planting.
The department said it was not known yet whether any of the wheat got into the food supply or into grain shipments. Even if it did, officials said, it would pose no threat to health. The Food and Drug Administration reviewed the wheat and found no safety problems with it in 2004.
Still, the mere presence of the genetically modified plant could cause some countries to turn away exports of American wheat, especially if any traces of the unapproved grain were found in shipments. About $8.1 billion in American wheat was exported in 2012, representing nearly half the total $17.9 billion crop, according to U.S. Wheat Associates, which promotes American wheat abroad. About 90 percent of Oregon’s wheat crop is exported.
It’s not clear when the discovery was made. In a statement on its website, Monsanto said it was contacted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding its investigation “earlier this month.” The USDA announced the discovery on Wednesday and said nine investigators are trying to figure out how the freak wheat wound up growing on the unnamed farmer’s land. Reuters reports that there were eight field trials of Monsanto’s GMO wheat in Oregon from 1999 to 2001.
While the federal government and agriculture industry scramble to investigate and manage fallout from the escaped wheat strain, there is one company that doesn’t seem too concerned. You can guess who that might be. From a statement posted on Monsanto’s website:
Over the past decade, an annual average of 58 million acres of wheat have been planted in the United States. This is the first report of the Roundup Ready trait being found out of place since Monsanto’s commercial wheat development program was discontinued nine years ago. …
Accordingly, while USDA’s results are unexpected, there is considerable reason to believe that the presence of the Roundup Ready trait in wheat, if determined to be valid, is very limited.
Well, if it’s “very limited,” then, I suppose there’s no need for concern. Try telling that to America’s wheat trading partners.
UPDATE: America’s trading partners are indeed uphappy.