News / USA

    Unapproved US Wheat Sparks Trade Concerns

    Wheat is harvested on a farm in the midwestern United States, July 2009.Wheat is harvested on a farm in the midwestern United States, July 2009.
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    Wheat is harvested on a farm in the midwestern United States, July 2009.
    Wheat is harvested on a farm in the midwestern United States, July 2009.
    Some countries are suspending imports of U.S. wheat after an unapproved genetically modified variety turned up in a farmer’s field in the northwestern state of Oregon.

    The Oregon farmer discovered wheat in his field that survived treatment with the popular weed killer Roundup. Roundup is made by the seed and chemical company Monsanto.

    The company has created genetically modified corn, cotton, soybean and canola crops that tolerate Roundup. Monsanto also had field-tested Roundup-tolerant varieties of wheat. The company never had the modified wheat approved or brought the seeds to market. But Michael Firko with the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the wheat had passed safety inspections.

    “Although there are no wheat varieties that are approved for unrestricted planting, we have no safety concerns related to planting of this transgenic wheat at this time,” said Firko.

    Monsanto abandoned the genetically modified wheat project largely because customers in Europe and Asia are especially wary of what are known as GMO crops. The discovery of unapproved wheat in Oregon has already prompted Japan and Korea to suspend some imports, at least temporarily.

    “Our customers don’t want it. So we, as wheat producers, don’t want to be producing it,” said Mark Welch, an agricultural economist with Texas A&M University. Though the U.S. is the world’s largest wheat exporter, Welch said this incident could affect that standing in a competitive world marketplace. U.S. farmers are at a disadvantage because production costs are higher here than in competitor countries, he said.

    “If we’re going to maintain a place in world markets, we have to primarily do it on two fronts: one on quality, and the other on reliability. And this raises a red flag, of course, when something like this happens,” said Welch.

    Right now it is not clear how this happened. U.S. regulators are working to trace where the genetically modified wheat came from. While there is no evidence yet that it has entered the food supply, the USDA is working to make tests available to customers seeking confirmation.

    Meanwhile, many farmers are taking a wait-and-see approach. We reached wheat farmer Jerry McReynolds out in his spray truck.

    “For me personally as a producer it’s not causing any grief at all. Of course, we don’t know what the whole story is.”

    What he does know is that he is in the second year of a serious drought that is reducing his harvest.

    “We’ve done all kinds of things to catch water when we do get rain. And we will. Someday. And we’re going to be ready. But right now, it’s tough,” said McReynolds.

    Tough growing conditions across the U.S. wheat belt are a big factor weighing on the world grain markets, too. So far they seem to be balancing out concerns about the discovery of unapproved wheat, says Kansas State University economist Dan O’Brien.

    “So you’re balancing reduced supply with an issue that, on the demand side, may or may not turn out to be a larger issue in the longer run,” said O'Brien.

    Prices on global markets have not changed much since Wednesday's announcement. But O’Brien cautions that it is still early in the investigation. More surprises could be on the way.

    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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