The discovery in an Oregon field of gene-altered wheat developed by Monsanto Co. that was not approved for sale shows a failure of oversight that safety advocates say may endanger consumers and U.S. trading relationships.
Scientists said the rogue wheat was a strain tested from 1998 to 2005 by Monsanto, the world’s largest seedmaker, which withdrew its application for approval amid concern buyers would avoid crops from the U.S., the world’s biggest wheat exporter.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said yesterday it is investigating how the unapproved seeds slipped out and were growing nine years after St. Louis-based Monsanto ended its wheat program. The discovery prompted Japan to suspend imports of western-white wheat and feed wheat. Other overseas buyers may follow suit, according to critics including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Food Safety.
“This will have an impact worldwide, because our trading partners do not want genetically modified wheat,” Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union in New York, said in an interview. “This crop may be safe to eat, or it may not be. We don’t know because we haven’t done the proper scrutiny.”
Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries also canceled its plan to buy 24,926 tons of western-white wheat from U.S. in an import tender today, said Hiromi Iwahama, director for grain trade operations at the ministry. The European Union will recommend countries test imported U.S. wheat.
Wheat for July delivery on the Chicago Board of Trade dropped 1.1 percent to $6.9475 a bushel by 8:12 a.m. local time. Futures have slumped 11 percent this year.
Unauthorized releases of biotech products such as corn and rice have been costly to U.S. farmers and shippers including Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. in the past, according to a 2008 Government Accountability Office study of six unintentional releases of genetically modified products.
The 2000 release of Aventis SA’s StarLink corn cost as much as $288 million in lost revenue and a year-long drop in the grain’s price, the GAO reported. The 2006 release of Bayer AG’s Liberty Link rice cost as much as $1.29 billion in lost exports, food recalls and other expenses, the GAO said, citing an environmental advocacy group. Bayer agreed last year to pay $750 million to settle claims with about 11,000 U.S. farmers.
Government investigators are tracking the wheat plants’ origin and assuring trade partners the exposure is limited and poses no threat to human health, said Michael Firko, acting deputy administrator at the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. No evidence exists that the unapproved wheat has entered the commercial food or feed supply, he said.
“We are taking this very seriously,” Firko said yesterday. “We have a very active investigation going on in several states in the western U.S.”
The farmer in Oregon was attempting to kill wheat using Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide when he found several plants survived, the USDA said yesterday.
Monsanto said the Oregon discovery is isolated and shouldn’t concern consumers or trading partners. The company halted plans to develop modified wheat in May 2004 after the Canadian Wheat Board, then the world’s largest grain seller, said its 10 biggest red spring-wheat importers, including Japan, the U.K. and Malaysia, wouldn’t accept the varieties.
The wheat discovered in Oregon was bred to resist glyphosate, the key ingredient of Roundup. The product permits farmers to kill unwanted plants without endangering the crop developed to resist it, which the company markets as Roundup Ready.
“There are no food, feed, or environmental safety concerns associated with the presence of the Roundup Ready gene if it is found to be present in wheat,” Monsanto said in a statement. “This is the first report of the Roundup Ready trait being found out of place since Monsanto’s commercial development program was discontinued nine years ago.”
The company resumed efforts to develop modified wheat in 2009 with its $45 million purchase of WestBred LLC. Monsanto was responding to farmers in the U.S., Canada and Australia who called for development of modified wheat to better compete with corn and soybeans that had undergone yield gains resulting from genetic engineering, the company said at the time.
The Center for Food Safety, a Washington-based group that has successfully sued the USDA over its approvals of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets and alfalfa, called for a moratorium on field testing gene-altered crops until the circumstances and prevalence of the wheat contamination are determined.
“This is another serious breakdown of their field trial system, which endangers farmers and the entire wheat industry,” Bill Freese, the center’s science policy analyst, said by telephone. “It’s especially troubling here because there hasn’t been a field trial of Roundup Ready wheat in Oregon since 2001, so it’s totally unclear where this is coming from.”
The USDA needs to replace flexible standards for field tests with rules that determine how experimental crops are planted, such as setting minimum distances between fields, Freese said.
The renegade wheat was discovered amid a revival of opposition to genetically engineered foods. Activists rallied in 36 countries on May 25 for a March Against Monsanto, arguing that the company is trying to overturn disclosure laws in the European Union and engineered legal protections for its crops in the U.S. omnibus spending bill in March.
U.S. lawmakers are pushing measures to require labeling of products made from genetically modified crops, a proposal opposed by farm groups and sellers such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Environmental groups have secured pledges from grocers including Target Corp. and Trader Joe’s Co. not to sell genetically modified salmon, which is in the final stages of review by the Food and Drug Administration.
The location of the Oregon farm wasn’t disclosed because of the nature of the investigation, the USDA said. Officials from Oregon, Washington and Idaho along with Monsanto and U.S. trading partners were notified before the announcement.
Criminal violations of the Plant Protection Act may include civil penalties up to $1 million.