Trade spat proves need for rules
Japan has resumed its purchase of western white wheat that were suspended after unauthorized Roundup Ready wheat was found growing in a fallow northeast Oregon field this spring.
Officials from Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries met with Northwest wheat industry representatives last month in Portland, and met with U.S. Department of Agriculture officials in Washington, D.C. to discuss the status of USDA's investigation.
Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Commission, told us that MAFF officials seemed satisfied with the information provided by USDA. Tests conducted on Japanese wheat stocks purchased from the U.S. failed to turn up any GMO contamination.
While visiting officials could not provide a timeline, it seemed purchases would resume in the near future. South Korean millers resumed buying soft white wheat last month.
That's good news for wheat farmers in the Pacific Northwest who ship 90 percent of their crop to foreign markets, mostly in Asia. The announcement of the discovery in May, just weeks before this summer's harvest, created a great deal of uncertainty.
The actual impact on markets has thus far been slight, and it appears quick and thorough testing has averted disaster.
But the mystery remains. How did never-released Roundup Ready wheat last field tested in 2005 end up growing in an isolated field in 2013? We may never know.
USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has more than a dozen investigators on the case. It's conducted more than 200 interviews and tested seed and field samples from vendors and farmers. APHIS hasn't turned up any biotech wheat other than the volunteer plants found growing in the northeast Oregon field.
Experts we've talked with say it doesn't seem plausible for the Roundup Ready gene to have persisted in the environment, contaminating conventional wheat over the years since testing halted.
Monsanto -- which developed, but never submitted for release, the genetically modified wheat -- has said its own testing of wheat varieties indicates the unauthorized release is an isolated incident and potentially the result of sabotage by biotech opponents.
Most experts discount the sabotage theory, believing instead that seed grown in field tests and stored away entered the seed distribution chain. But how?
Monsanto says participants in field testing followed all the rules and protocols approved by APHIS for those tests. But by all accounts oversight is lax. If paperwork is filled out correctly and the parties attest to its accuracy, all is good.
We support the development of genetically modified crops, and their adoption when they meet the demands of the market and provide economic advantage for farmers. But prior to their release, APHIS needs to take a more hands-on approach to guard against the unintended release of GMO varieties.
While we're not fans of unnecessary or heavy-handed regulation, the wider farming community has an economic stake in preventing unintended outcomes.