Unapproved genetically engineered wheat has been discovered in an Oregon field, a potential threat to trade with countries that have concerns about genetically modified foods.
The U.S. Agriculture Department has said that the genetically engineered wheat is safe to eat and there is no evidence that modified wheat entered the marketplace. But the department is investigating how it ended up in the field, whether there was any criminal wrongdoing and whether its growth is widespread.
The unidentified farmer discovered the modified wheat when farm workers were trying to kill some wheat plants that popped up between harvests. The farmer used the herbicide glyphosate to kill the plants, but they did not die, prompting the tests at Oregon State to find out if the crops were genetically engineered to resist herbicides. USDA officials would not identify the farmer or the farm's exact
location-- but the field with the genetically modified wheat is in the
eastern part of the state.
The tests confirmed that the plants were a strain developed by Monsanto to resist its herbicides and tested between 1998 and 2005. At the time Monsanto had applied to USDA for permission to develop the engineered wheat, but the company later pulled its application.
USDA said that during that seven-year period, it authorized more than 100 field tests with the same glyphosate-resistant wheat variety. Tests were conducted in in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming. During the original testing and application process, the Food and Drug Administration had reviewed the variety found in Oregon and said it was as safe as conventional varieties of wheat.
As of today, however, no genetically engineered wheat has been approved for U.S. farming. While most of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are already genetically modified, the country's wheat crop is not.
The discovery could have far-reaching implications for the U.S. wheat industry if the growth of the engineered product turns out to be far-flung. Many countries around the world will not accept imports of genetically modified foods, and the U.S. exports about half of its wheat crop.
The discovery also could have implications for organic companies, which by law cannot use genetically engineered ingredients in its foods. Organic farmers have frequently expressed concern that genetically modified seed will blow into organic farms and contaminate their products. Consumers have shown increasing interest in avoiding genetically modified foods. Several states are considering bills that would require them to be labeled so consumers know what they are eating.