Japan, S. Korea suspend U.S. wheat until new test in place

Matthew Weaver

Capital Press

Published on August 1, 2016 5:04PM

Last changed on August 4, 2016 10:16AM

The entrance to the Monsanto Co. headquarters in St. Louis is seen in a file photo. Twenty-two plants of a variety of genetically modified wheat developed by the company have been found in a fallow field in Washington state.

AP Photo/James A. Finley, File

The entrance to the Monsanto Co. headquarters in St. Louis is seen in a file photo. Twenty-two plants of a variety of genetically modified wheat developed by the company have been found in a fallow field in Washington state.

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Japan and South Korea will defer new purchases of U.S. wheat until they can implement a new test for genetically engineered wheat, a U.S. Wheat Associates spokesman says.

Twenty-two genetically engineered wheat plants were found in a fallow Washington state field. The discovery is under investigation by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries deferred new purchases of Western white wheat — a blend of soft white wheat and subclass club wheat produced in the Pacific Northwest for customers in Japan and Taiwan — until the new test could be put into place. It should take two to three weeks for Japan to implement the test, according to U.S. Wheat.

The South Korean government is holding any U.S. wheat from mills until it can implement the new test.

With the test materials already in the country, the South Korean government is expected to start testing U.S. wheat as soon as this week, said Steve Mercer, vice president of communications for U.S. Wheat Associates.

The next ships carrying U.S. wheat will arrive in South Korea in the second half of August and are expected to be unloaded and distributed under normal conditions.

There have been no additional restrictions or requests for testing from other countries, Mercer said.


Different variety


APHIS announced the discovery of the genetically engineered wheat plants on July 29. The wheat was developed by the Monsanto Co. and called MON 71700. It was evaluated in a limited number of field trials in the Pacific Northwest from 1998 to 2001 but never commercialized, according to Monsanto.

“Any answer to how these plants got into a fallow field would be speculative at this point,” said Charla Lord, spokesperson for Monsanto. “The USDA requested Monsanto’s technical support in this matter and we will continue to help them as needed.”

MON 71700 contains the same inserted DNA as MON 71800, which was found in an Eastern Oregon field in the spring of 2013. An APHIS investigation was unable to pinpoint the source of that wheat. The DNA is in a different genomic position, according to Monsanto.

Monsanto developed the test for MON 71700 and USDA has validated it.

Japan had already been testing U.S. wheat for MON 71800. The new test will be capable of detecting both MON 71800 and MON 71700, Mercer said.

Western white wheat already purchased but not yet delivered will not be halted, Mercer said. Japanese tenders this month are for delivery in October. Japan typically keeps 1.8 months of inventory on hand.

“The test materials and instructions are in Japan, but we think MAFF and other agencies will validate the test before putting it to use,” Mercer said.

Japan is the biggest customer for wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest. About 80 percent of the wheat grown in the region is exported.

U.S. Wheat doesn’t expect changes in importation, such as vessel loading, discharging or the execution of existing sales contracts.

There may also be a temporary hold on the distribution of supplies of Western white wheat that are already stored in Japan for mills, pending the set-up of the new tests, Mercer said.

No genetically engineered wheat is commercially available, and there is no evidence of GE wheat in commerce, according to APHIS. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it is unlikely the wheat presents any safety concerns if present in the food supply.

Industry members hope open communication with overseas customers will keep the event from disrupting the market.

Blake Rowe, Oregon Wheat CEO, said APHIS’ approach is more proactive compared to the 2013 incident.

“I think there was earlier conversation with our trading partners and their governments,” he said. “They were aware, they knew what kind of work was going on. I think that was maybe something we learned from 2013, early communication and keeping them in the loop as to what progress is being made, so when the information (was announced), they weren’t surprised. They had some time to get comfortable.”


Farmers react


“I know there are procedures in place, APHIS was called in right away and the buyers were notified right away,” said Ron Jirava, a Ritzville, Wash., wheat farmer. “I think it’s a wait-and-see again what their final determinations are.”

“I hope it doesn’t amount to much — it shouldn’t amount to much,” said Ben Barstow, a farmer in Palouse, Wash.

The GE wheat discovery comes during a season that has also seen concerns about protein levels, falling number tests, stripe rust and low prices.

“It’s just one more thing,” Barstow said.

Like other farmers, Barstow is curious about how the GE wheat turned up in the field.

“The protocols that were in place to keep this stuff contained were as good as we could think of at the time — I’m sure they’re better now than they were 10 or 15 years ago, but still, it’s a mystery as how that stuff is showing up there,” he said.

Barstow said he is concerned about incorrect news stories he saw coming out of South Korea implying that GMO wheat is produced commercially in the U.S.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “I’m always concerned about how these things will be handled by the press. It’s really easy to frighten people about these things, and there’s no need for it, at all.”

Jirava expects similar situations will occur.

“As long there’s geese, deer and mice, stuff’s going to move around that we don’t know about until it shows up,” he said. “Nobody, I don’t think, is trying to deliberately do something underhanded. I think this is just something the wildlife have gotten into and we see it move around a little bit.”

“We’re not surprised by this at all,” said Amy van Saun, an attorney for the Center for Food Safety in Portland. The center is a nonprofit public interest and environmental advocacy organization. “Contamination by GE crops and GE organisms generally is inevitable. It keeps happening over and over again.”

This is the third discovery of genetically engineered wheat in the U.S. Besides the 2013 discovery in Eastern Oregon, in September of 2014 a different variety of glyphosate-resistant wheat was found in a Huntley, Mont., research plot, where genetically engineered wheat had been legally tested 11 years before.

Van Saun said the center wants to see better regulations for field trials to protect farmers who grow non-GE crops.

“These field trials were taking place back in the late 1990s-early 2000s, so why is this still happening now?” she asked.


Whole crop tested


APHIS says it has taken measures to ensure no GE wheat moves into commerce.

“Out of an abundance of caution,” the agency is testing the farmer’s full wheat harvest for the presence of any GE material, according to an APHIS notice. The farmer’s harvest is finished and will be held while USDA completes testing of the grain.

So far, all samples have tested negative for any GE material. If any wheat tests positive for GE material, the farmer’s crop will not be allowed into commerce.

The farmer’s name and the location of the field were not disclosed.

Grain import officials in Japan and South Korea have tested for the “GE event” identified in 2013 in virtually every load of U.S. wheat delivered to those countries since August 2013, U.S. Wheat and the National Association of Wheat Growers said.

No GE wheat has been identified in more than 350 million bushels of wheat exported to Japan alone, the organizations said.

Researchers at Washington State University have conducted routine phenotype screening for glyphosate tolerance in wheat since 2013. Varieties included in WSU’s trials represent more than 95 percent of the wheat planted in Washington and much of the acreage planted in Idaho and Oregon, according to the U.S. Wheat and NAWG statement.

“Screening to date has revealed no glyphosate-tolerant wheat plants in these trials,” the statement said.

Genetically engineered crops are alternatively called genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Dan Steiner, grains merchant for Morrow County Grain Growers in Boardman, Ore., said the market has not responded further to the incident.

Soft white wheat and club wheat on Aug. 2 ranged from 4.67 per bushel to $4.90 per bushel on the Portland market.

“I don’t know if we’re seeing a weaker basis as a result of this GMO thing or if it’s just strictly harvest pressure that’s coming onto the market right now,” Steiner said. “It looks more like it’s just precautionary at this time. Right now it looks more like a temporary blip.”

As long as GMO wheat faces opposition, Jirava hopes that the industry remains honest.

“I would hope we all stay above board and are upfront about everything, nobody ever tries to ever (say), ‘Well, let’s not say anything,’” he said. “We can’t do that. We have to be upfront and go, ‘We found something, we don’t know, we’re trying to figure it out to the best of our knowledge.’”

Online

USDA notice: http://bit.ly/2aaaZAi



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