Source of Oregon GM wheat remains mystery
By Eric Mortenson
Drought, untimely heat and surprise frost would have been problems enough for Pacific Northwest wheat growers. Throw in the still-unexplained discovery of genetically engineered wheat growing in an eastern Oregon field and you’ve got a mess in the making.
But with harvest over, the industry is breathing easier. “I think we’re OK,” said Blake Rowe, chief executive of the Oregon Wheat Commission.
“Through a combination of very careful, cautious folks and maybe a little bit of luck, we came through this pretty well,” Rowe said. “The markets are intact and grain is moving.”
For awhile this past spring and summer, all of that was in doubt.
Weather is always part of the equation for growers. This year, a lack of moisture combined with heat and cold fluctuations reduced the harvest to about 80 percent of normal in Oregon, Rowe said. But protein levels were up, grain defects were low and the test weight of bushels — another measure of quality — was about normal.
What no one planned on was discovery of unapproved “Roundup Ready” plants growing where none should have been. The finding became international news, fodder for GMO opponents and a sharp concern to the region’s biggest export markets.
The drama began in late April when an unidentified Oregon farmer noticed some volunteer plants that had sprouted in a fallow 125-acre field did not die when he sprayed them with glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s Roundup herbicide.
An Oregon State University weed scientist tested plant samples and determined they carried a gene that made them resistant to glyphosate. USDA scientists confirmed the testing result.
But it didn’t make sense. The Roundup Ready variety was one Monsanto field-tested in 16 states, including Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California, from 1998 through 2005. But the last Oregon testing was in 2001, the field where the plants were found wasn’t a test site, and Monsanto withdrew its application for approval of the variety in 2004.
Market reaction was swift. Japan and South Korea temporarily suspended new wheat purchases and other countries considered similar action. Investigators with the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service interviewed dozens of growers and tested seed and grain samples.
They found nothing else. Japan and South Korea resumed wheat purchases and a sense of normalcy returned to the wheat fields.
In an email sent before the government shutdown this past week, APHIS spokesman Ed Curlett said the investigation isn’t finished but the agency has not yet figured out how the plants got into the field. APHIS has found no evidence that genetically engineered wheat entered the commerce stream, he said.
The lack of a final answer is frustrating, Rowe said.
“It would sure be nice to have more information than that,” he said. “I don’t understand what they’re still doing. I don’t understand why the delay. I’m not saying it’s not justified, but it would be nice if they’d tell us what they are doing instead of saying it’s still in progress.”
On the other hand, Rowe is happy with the way the industry handled the crisis. About 90 percent of Northwest wheat is exported to Asia, where it’s made into noodles, crackers and cakes. Crucial markets were at risk.
“I think we stuck to what we knew, we didn’t speculate so we didn’t create a bunch of speculative headlines,” Rowe said. “I think we did a pretty good job as an industry.”
Growers, marketers, university researchers and agricultural agencies remained calm and focused, he said. Export market customers stayed loyal to Northwest wheat and patiently waited for information.
Trust earned through decades of selling wheat to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere paid off, Rowe said.
“We figured out early on there was no way to portray this as good news,” he said. “But to our customers, we can say we were open about it, we didn’t try to cover it up. We did what you would expect your suppliers to do.
“I like being able to look at our growers and say, ‘Guys, you did it right.’”