Wheat probe unearths mysteries
Since the announcement last month that a grower in northeastern Oregon found unauthorized genetically modified wheat in his fallowed field, farmers have been anxiously awaiting word from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
So far, there have been far more questions than answers. APHIS needs to step up its release of information to calm grower fears.
In announcing the discovery, APHIS said it was investigating to find out how a Roundup Ready wheat developed but never released by Monsanto found its way to a field in Oregon.
Although several strains of genetically modified wheat have been tested by Monsanto and other seed companies, none have ever been brought to APHIS for full deregulation and commercialization because export markets have yet to warm up to the idea of genetically modified material in such a basic staple.
The news had an almost immediate impact on foreign markets, which buy 90 percent of the soft white winter wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest. South Korea, Japan and Taiwan suspended their purchases awaiting word on how much of the crop could be contaminated.
With a crop a month or so from harvest, growers in the Northwest are understandably concerned that they could face a financial catastrophe. And in every gathering of two or more they ask the same questions: Where did the GM wheat come from, how did it get into a field in Oregon, how much is out there and is it in their fields?
For its part, APHIS has played its cards close to the vest and has said little about the direction of the investigation. What has been reported has been pieced together by various news organizations covering the story.
Growers have become so frustrated with the lack of information that the Tri-State Wheat Commission, meeting June 14 in Boise, vowed to go to USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C., to get answers.
As if on cue, as the group met, APHIS released its most complete statement on the investigation to date. It declared the discovery to be an isolated case. It said it's found no evidence that genetically modified wheat has entered the commercial distribution chain. It said it has sampled the grower's 2012 harvest and his seed dealer's inventory and found no other contamination. It said it is interviewing 200 area growers.
It also said it has given trading partners a test, developed by Monsanto and certified by the USDA, that can find the Roundup Ready strain in question in concentrations of one per 200 kernels.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
If the discovery of an acre or so of volunteer plants scattered across a 125-acre field is just an isolated case, how did it get there? How did seed not field tested in Oregon since 2001, nor anywhere else since 2005, find its way to just one spot in one field among the 3.2 million acres of winter wheat grown in the Northwest?
Monsanto says it has accounted for all of the wheat grown in its test plots, but has not said what specifically happened to that grain. It has suggested the release could have been intentional, but has not proffered a theory as to how or to what end that was carried out.
We assume APHIS is working to answer all of these questions, but we don't know for sure. It won't say anything about the direction the investigation is taking.
It's possible that we may never know the answers to the key questions. Growers and the general public would have more confidence in the government's assertion that this is an isolated incident if they knew what questions APHIS is asking, and who they are questioning.