Source of GMO wheat still a mystery
By Eric Mortenson
A year later and the dryland farmers don’t talk much about GMO wheat.
Once in awhile in the coffee shops, that’s about it. These days they’re more likely to raise a cup to welcome the rain that’s arrived on the Columbia Plateau. Finally, there’s the moisture that will get them through the dry summer.
Well, a guy might look twice if he sees green growth in a fallow field he hit with Roundup. That can bring it to mind. But there isn’t much to say otherwise.
It’s been a year and the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service hasn’t finished its investigation. It hasn’t said how genetically modified wheat appeared in an Eastern Oregon field last year and threatened the international market that sustains Pacific Northwest wheat growers.
The lack of an answer frustrates producers.
“The longer it goes on, the more speculation and conjecture there is,” said Darren Padget, a Sherman County, Ore., grower. The worst outcome, he said, would be if APHIS “drops a bomb on us” by releasing a report during harvest this summer.
“That’s what scares me more than a plant that wouldn’t die,” Padget said, referring to the event that touched off the investigation last year.
Jerry Marguth, a Junction City, Ore., grower and president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, said producers have told USDA, “Our concern is that we didn’t want the report to surface just as the combines hit the field this summer.”
Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Commission, said producers have asked the region’s congressional delegation to press for a resolution.
“We’ve asked them to make some calls to see if we can get more information from APHIS,” Rowe said. “All we know is that they’re continuing to work on it. As usual, they won’t give you a timeline, they won’t say specifically what they are doing.
“I don’t really need a sequel to this,” Rowe said.
APHIS spokeswoman Lyndsay Cole said the agency is aware a resolution is “greatly important” to growers and trading partners.
“With that in mind, there are a number of complexities we are working through right now,” Cole said in an email, “including the proper review of thousands of pages of potentially confidential business information, which is dependent upon external review by the parties who submitted the information to USDA as part of the investigation.
“We are confident in saying that this was a single isolated incident in a single field on a single farm in Oregon,” Cole said in the email.
It’s instructive to review how we got here. In April 2013 a grower in the Pendleton area sprayed a fallow field with glyphosate, a common practice to control weeds while the field sits out a production cycle. The 125-acre field had been planted with certified seed in October 2011 and harvested in the summer of 2012.
This time, the unidentified farmer was surprised to see the glyphosate treatment didn’t kill a number of wheat plants, “volunteers” that presumably had sprouted from seed knocked loose during harvest. The plants were scattered over an estimated 1 percent of the field, according to the farmer’s attorney.
Puzzled, the farmer did what growers do: Took the problem to Oregon State University’s crop experts. After an initial check with the local research station, he sent field samples to OSU weed scientist Carol Mallory-Smith in Corvallis.
Mallory-Smith determined the plants carried a genetic trait that allowed them resist glyphosate. Testing by APHIS confirmed the finding: The plants were a “Roundup Ready” variety developed by Monsanto Co. to withstand the key ingredient in its herbicide.
Monsanto field-tested the variety in 16 states, including Oregon, from 1998 to 2005, but withdrew its application to have it approved because farmers objected. Buyers in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the chief markets for Pacific Northwest wheat, are strongly opposed to GMO food products. U.S. growers, anxious to protect a relationship they’ve carefully cultivated since the late 1940s, wanted no part of Monsanto’s experiment even though most personally support biotech agriculture.
“If Japan doesn’t want it, I don’t want it,” said Padget, the Sherman County grower. “I’m not anti-GMO. I’m anti-shoot myself in the foot.”
“We walk a very fine line out here because in the end you answer to your customers,” said Walter Powell, a wheat grower in neighboring Gilliam County.
The mystery only deepened as APHIS investigators flooded the region. Monsanto’s GM wheat variety hadn’t been tested in Oregon since 2001, and never in the field where it was found. The farmer had planted soft white winter wheat, while Monsanto’s trials had involved a spring wheat variety.
Vociferous GMO opponents roiled the media with “We told you so” comments. Opponents believe gentically-modified food crops are unsafe, will contaminate non-GMO crops, cannot be controlled and have been subject to lax review by the USDA. Here, they said, was proof.
Writing in the Huffington Post blog in June 2013, shortly after the discovery, Andrew Gunther reflected the views of many:
“At the very least, the identification of this unapproved GM wheat has just blown a hole the size of Oregon in the U.S. regulatory regime — a regime that’s supposed to protect us from just this type of event,” he wrote. “It also makes a complete mockery of Monsanto’s often patronizing assurances about the control measures it puts in place to minimize any risks to the environment.
“Remember: this unapproved GM wheat wasn’t identified through any elaborate national government testing regime or careful follow-up monitoring of the trial site by Monsanto,” Gunther continued. “No, it was the result of commonsense action by a farmer who spotted something unusual in his field. I’m just surprised Monsanto hasn’t tried to sue him for the unauthorized use of its intellectual property…”
At least 16 lawsuits were filed against Monsanto and have been consolidated for federal court review and possible settlement. One of the claims, filed on behalf of a Spokane, Wash., wheat grower, invokes a common theme: Monsanto knew or should have known that it was impossible to isolate genetically-engineered wheat from other varieties, and that some would “inevitably cross-pollinate, commingle with other conventional wheat seeds and/or find its way into the food chain through other Monsanto acts or omissions as it has now done.”
While most growers distance themselves from legal action filed by attorneys they consider “tractor chasers,” the international market reaction was a grave concern. Up to 90 percent of the soft white wheat grown in Oregon and Washington and about 50 percent of Idaho’s production is exported to Asia, where it is milled into flour for cakes, crackers and noodles. Japan and Korea, the biggest buyers, temporarily suspended purchases. Other importers called for testing protocols and sought reassurance.
The potential economic loss was immense. Oregon’s wheat crop alone is worth up to $500 million annually. Hundreds of farm, port, distribution and marketing jobs are linked to the harvest. Approximately 11.4 million metric tons of wheat flowed from the Columbia River ports of Portland, Kalama, Longview and Vancouver in 2013 – more than 35 percent of total U.S. wheat exports.
Apparently reassured by test results and information belatedly shared by USDA, Japan and Korea resumed purchases last summer. Since then, there’s been little to discuss. APHIS is still working on it. Anti-GMO organizations still believe the worst. Monsanto still insists its testing protocol was rigidly controlled and still maintains genetically engineered crops pose no hazard to food or feed. APHIS still says there’s been no more GM wheat found and still no evidence that it got into commerce.
In the absence of answers, conjecture has taken root.
Russ Karow, head of the OSU Crop and Soil Science Department that first identified the “Roundup Ready” trait, said the contamination was most likely caused by “some random event” such as a small amount of seeds set aside or caught up in equipment, forgotten or mis-labeled, and inadvertently added to a mix.
“People have raised the specter of some kind of biosabotage,” Karow said, “but that doesn’t make sense with what’s been observed or reported thus far.”
Karow said OSU’s work in identifying the genetic trait has not been challenged.
“All is silent at this point,” he said. “We took it as a reasonably good sign that nobody has credited or discredited us at this point.”
If nothing else, Karow said, the episode has raised awareness about the delicate science of improving crops through genetic modification.
“It’s a bit of a wake up call,” he said. “Any time you are dealing with nature, there are no zeros.”
Many growers and researchers believe the episode points out the need to set GMO tolerance levels with overseas buyers. Others note the complications of regulation and isolation: The field where the GM wheat was found had been planted with certified seed that was grown in Oregon, transported across the state line, sold by a Washington dealer and hauled back to Oregon for planting, according to Padget.
Meanwhile, the farmer whose discovery touched off the investigation continues to cooperate fully with APHIS, said his attorney, Tim Bernasek of Portland. The farmer does not want to be identified and continues to decline interview requests submitted through his attorney.
No wheat is planted in the field this year, Bernasek said. He declined to elaborate.
The prevailing opinion among other growers is that the farmer did the right thing in seeking an answer to what was going on in his field. He could have tilled under the plants that survived glyphosate spraying and no one would have known.
However, Umatilla County grower Tyson Raymond said the lack of conclusion undermines farmers’ faith in the system.
“APHIS is not doing themselves any favors by taking so long,” he said. “It doesn’t promote confidence to come forward.”
The dryland wheat guys have always had the most to lose. With 10- to 12-inches of rain a year, thin topsoil and no irrigation water available, most have no other practical crop options. It’s wheat or nothing. The Columbia Plateau this time of year is an immense patchwork of green and brown, signature of the winter wheat-summer fallow rotation that preserves precious moisture.
Many farmers use “no till” or light tillage methods, no longer plowing deep under the stubble of the previous crop. The method reduces erosion and runoff, but weeds become more of a problem. Spraying fallow fields with glyphosate keeps weeds under control; which is what the farmer was doing last year at this time.
This spring, driving to their fields or passing a neighbor’s, growers found themselves looking for telltale green where it shouldn’t be. In the past they might have dismissed it. A clogged nozzle or a gust of wind might have affected the sprayer. Maybe it skipped in a tight corner. Maybe they got the mix wrong.
Maybe they’ll keep an eye on it. In the meantime, this summer’s crop is rising green and strong. The rain came at last.
“You just go about your business,” Darren Padget said. “Life goes on and you do what you do.”