The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed Wednesday that an Oregon field is contaminated with an unauthorized genetically modified strain of wheat.
The development is putting advocates for one of the region’s top crops in a defensive posture as they brace for dampened international demand for Northwest wheat.
Monsanto tested a herbicide-resistant wheat variety in 16 states, but it was never approved for commercial production.
An Eastern Oregon farmer was letting one of his fields go fallow this spring so he sprayed it with the herbicide, Roundup. But that didn’t kill some wheat plants, which he sent to scientists at Oregon State University for testing.
Robert Zemetra is a wheat geneticist at OSU who helped analyze the wheat plants. He said multiple tests have confirmed that the wheat carried a laboratory-engineered gene that makes it resistant to Roundup.
Zemetra said the contamination could pose a problem for wheat growers in the Northwest. About 75 percent of wheat grown in the region is exported to markets in Asia, Canada, and Europe. Oregon is even more dependent on the export market: about 90 percent of its crop is sold to overseas, to customers who generally request GMO free wheat.
“There will probably need to be some type of testing done on grain shipments to some countries to assure them that the material they are receiving is GMO free,” he said.
The concern was raised by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. His office issued a statement saying it was important that the federal government to complete its investigation and safeguard the state’s crops.
“We need to assure our trading partners that Northwest wheat remains a premium crop,” Inslee said, according to the statement.
Blake Row, with the Oregon Wheat Growers league, says there are about 900 thousand acres of wheat growing in Oregon this year, and most of it will be ready to harvest within a month.
“The clock’s running. So there’s a sense of urgency in the grower community to figure out what we need to do and get it done.”
Row says he doesn’t know yet if the USDA plans to test wheat from other Oregon farms to look for the modified gene. The USDA says it is ivestigating how the Roundup resistant wheat appeared in Oregon years after field-tests ended.
Michael Firko, with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, says the GM wheat is safe for humans and animals.
“We’ve reviewed this particular trangenic trait, and although there are no wheat varieties that are approved for unrestricted planting, we have no safety concerns.”
Monsanto issued a statement saying tests for the modified gene require sophisticated methods and can produce false positive results. The company says it can’t confirm USDA’s report of GM wheat in Oregon until it receives samples and more details.
Read a fact sheet from the USDA on the genetically engineered Roundup-resistant wheat: