Nervous Farmers in the Northwest Await Tests for Rogue Wheat

Photograph by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The Pacific Northwest wheat harvest begins in less than a month, and growers are getting antsy for the results of federal tests on genetically modified wheat discovered this spring on an Oregon farm. The wheat containing an experimental gene engineered by Monsanto, called CP4, was last tested in Oregon in 2001 and was designed to resist a Monsanto herbicide. Its surprise appearance in April—when an eastern Oregon farmer tried unsuccessfully to kill it—has jolted the U.S. wheat industry and made many growers fearful about attracting foreign buyers as the harvest comes in.

“The frustration out here is that we just haven’t gotten any new information from the USDA,” says Byron Behne, marketing manager for Northwest Grain Growers, a co-op in Walla Walla, Wash. “Without that clarity the Japanese aren’t going to resume their imports; the Koreans probably aren’t.” Oregon, Washington, and Idaho export 90 percent of their annual crop of soft white wheat, a lot of it typically to noodle-hungry Japan. Most of that wheat will be harvested and ready to send abroad by August, making for a bit of a nervous summer for those riding the combines. Japan has already banned soft white wheat, and the European Union has said it wants to see testing before it buys any (although Europe is a miniscule market for the variety).

One outcome of the genetically modified wheat discovery may well be new genetic testing requirements for wheat exports—if a simple, effective test can be devised, Behne says. In a public-relations effort this week, Monsanto officials said they had tested 50 varieties of wheat seed planted in Oregon and Washington in 2011, as well as 600 samples of the two seed types the Oregon farmer had planted. None of the tests (PDF) detected the experimental gene, Monsanto said, stressing in its statements that the modified wheat had been restricted to a small area. Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety also tested 40 samples of wheat and five samples of milled flour from Oregon and found none of the modified wheat, according to a report on Friday from U.S. Wheat Associates, a farmers’ group.

“The USDA is the only one who hasn’t come out and said something” about the results of its wheat-seed investigation, Behne says, which he finds puzzling. Officials from the National Association of Wheat Growers went to Capitol Hill this week to urge speedy testing from the Department of Agriculture. Still, even if the CP4 gene had been discovered, its safety for humans was established nine years ago by the Food and Drug Administration, Monsanto has argued. “Let me remind you that this is the same CP4 protein that is found in our already approved and widely grown corn, soybean, cotton, and canola seed products,” Monsanto’s chief technology officer, Robb Fraley, said in a video on the St. Louis-based company’s website. “This means that the reported detection poses no concern if determined to be present in wheat.”

Meanwhile, the first lawsuits over the modified wheat have been filed, in Kansas and Washington State. The Center for Food Safety launched one suit seeking class-action status, with several others filed by individual farmers. Lawyers have been scouring Oregon for wheat farmers ready to sign on to even more lawsuits, says Blake Rowe, chief executive officer of the Oregon Wheat Commission. “I call them ambulance chasers,” he says.

In the end, the outcome of the modified-wheat testing is just another variable a farmer can’t control, much like rainfall or swings in grain prices. “This is a business where you get used to dealing with things you don’t necessarily have control about,” Rowe says. “I hope (growers) are sleeping OK at night, but that doesn’t mean they are. They pay me to lose sleep.”

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