When the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered illegal genetically modified wheat in an Oregon field earlier this year, it began a domino effect of concern throughout the world.
It starts with local farmers who purchased the wheat seeds without knowledge that they were, in fact, not approved for human consumption. And it’s not just a few farmers who are concerned. According to The Seattle Times, the impacts are far-reaching. Washington has 1.5 million acres of wheat, while Oregon and Idaho combine for an additional 1.7 million acres.
Consumers are also thrown into this equation, as they’re ultimately the ones on the receiving end. With harvest set for the Fourth of July, there’s a possibility that wheat not approved for U.S. consumption could find its way to America’s dinner plates.
And it doesn’t stop in the U.S., either.
The U.S. exports half of its wheat crop, according to Greenpeace. Not every country’s laws regarding GMO crops are as relaxed as those in the U.S. According to the USDA, genetically engineered wheat is “not currently authorized for commercial sale or planting in any other country.”
Eight European countries have already banned GMOs altogether. In the wake of the discovery in Oregon, officials in Japan, South Korea and the European Union erected new barriers to imports of U.S. wheat.
It is not clear how the seeds, which had not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, ended up in Oregon crops. However, this isn’t the first time the seeds were introduced — Monsanto was authorized to test the seeds from 1998 to 2005 in 16 states, according to the USDA.
In all, 100 fields were part of the testing period. However, the site where the GMO wheat was detected was not a test site.
Monsanto claims the seed could not have come from that experimental period, saying it wrapped up the program in line with standards.
“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,” Monsanto said in a statement, according to Food Production Design. “Our process for closing out the Roundup Ready wheat program was rigorous, well documented and audited.”
Environmental watchdog organizations say there’s room to be suspicious of that claim.
“This outbreak of GE wheat growing in the U.S. confirms our concerns that GE crops cannot be controlled,” Greenpeace International Scientist Janet Cotter said in a statement. “This is the latest in a long line of incidents involving the contamination of our food supply with GE crops not approved for human consumption.”
Cotter points to cases in which organic farmers were concerned that GMO seeds would find their way into non-GMO crops, essentially destroying the product for the “organic label.” This, she says, shows there is room to be worried that GMO seeds could find their way into unwanted territory.
“The developers of GE wheat have repeatedly said that GE wheat will not contaminate conventional or organic wheat because it is predominantly self-pollinating (i.e. the pollen does not spread very far, unlike crops such as maize and oilseed rape). Despite these empty promises, GE contamination has happened,” she wrote.
If the USDA finds that Monsanto is at fault for the contamination, it could be subject to up to $1 million in fines for violations of the Plant and Protection Act.
The fight of the farmers
The discovery of the GMO seeds, which were created to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, was first reported by an Oregon farmer. Suspicion grew when the farmer realized that some of the wheat plants were resistant to glyphosate, setting off a red flag.
Samples of the wheat crops were then sent to an Oregon State University scientist. On April 30, tests conducted by the university deemed the wheat to be from the once-tested but not approved GMO seed, according to a USDA fact sheet.
This month, Dan Brown, a wheat farmer from Kansas, filed a lawsuit against Monsanto for its alleged contribution to the fiasco. Brown represents not only himself, but potentially thousands of farmers who purchased and planted the seeds unknowingly.
Brown’s lawsuit is the third of its kind against the GMO seed giant for its sale of the unapproved seeds.
According to the Associated Press, Monsanto is fighting the allegations, claiming that the company is not liable because the wheat never entered the commercial market.
How does Monsanto know that? It doesn’t, technically. This month, Monsanto said it would continue to test wheat crops in Oregon, referring to the claims that GMO wheat was discovered as “suspicious.”
Yet the next round of harvest is right around the corner, scheduled for July 4, meaning the potentially tainted wheat could make it into the commercial realm.
Monsanto Technology Officer Robb Fraley told reporters that reports of the unlawful wheat are isolated incidents that are not the result of “normal” farming practices, according to Food Production Design.
USDA: Not approved, but safe
The big question for everyone is how the seed ended up in the ground. Monsanto is conducting its own investigation to determine just that.
According to Forbes, Oregon State University professor Robert Zemetra claims it’s unlikely the investigations will uncover the truth. Meanwhile, Monsanto is claiming that it was likely the fault of someone who accidentally or deliberately included the seed in the mix.
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is also undergoing an investigation to determine how the seeds reached the fields and how widespread the concern should be.
“We are taking this situation very seriously and have launched a formal investigation,” Michael Firko of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said in a statement. “Our first priority is to as quickly as possible determine the circumstances and extent of the situation and how it happened. We are collaborating with state, industry and trading partners on this situation and are committed to providing timely information about our findings.”
However, the USDA believes the non-approved wheat shouldn’t present a safety concern. In 2004, Monsanto provided information to the Food and Drug Administration indicating the wheat supply was safe. Even though the seed was never approved for the market, that’s good enough for the USDA.
“FDA completed the voluntary consultation with no further questions concerning the safety of grain and forage derived from this wheat, meaning that this variety is as safe as non-GE wheat currently on the market,” the USDA said in a statement.
Despite this lack of concern, the USDA is assuring Americans — and global markets — that all is well. The USDA’s claims that the illegal seeds are safe bodes well for their intent to assure this revelation doesn’t impact the global wheat market.
“We are working hard to reassure domestic and global wheat consumers that this development, although unwelcome, does not pose a risk to food safety,” the USDA states.
According to Forbes, Monsanto voluntarily dropped its genetically engineered wheat because of “lack of interest” from farmers and costs of research and development. Margaret Smith, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, told Discovery News that Monsanto’s decision had a lot to do with maintaining its global market share, as other countries aren’t receptive to the idea of the GMO crop.
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