Oregon wheat leaders hope for GM answers before harvest
By MATTHEW WEAVER
PENDLETON, Ore -- Oregon wheat industry leaders say they hope the USDA will give them some answers soon about how genetically modified wheat showed up last month in a single field.
Oregon Wheat CEO Blake Rowe said during an Oregon Wheat Commission meeting that the USDA will not comment on how long the investigation will take but that farmers would like to know more before harvest this summer. Eighteen investigators are working on the case.
"I don't think that necessarily reflects that there is some bad news," Rowe said. "I think that reflects that they sense the urgency of our harvest coming up. ..."
The commission is still waiting to find out what the GM wheat variety was, Rowe said.
"I think they must know, but they have refrained from saying what those specific plants are," he said. Testing by Oregon State University after the discovery found that the plants had the Roundup Ready trait but did not determine the plant variety.
Rowe said the farmer, who has not been identified, has cooperated with the investigation. The USDA investigators also contacted the seed provider and other farmers who acquired seed through the same source.
Rowe said it's not firm whether additional testing will be needed as a result of the investigation or to alleviate concerns of overseas customers. Discussions are ongoing, he said.
Japan and South Korea, both major wheat importers, have delayed purchases of soft white wheat, the type that is grown in much of the Pacific Northwest.
The USDA and Monsanto, developer of the trait, have provided a polymerase chain reaction test as a valid, official protocol to overseas customers in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and the European Union. There have been no reports of a positive test anywhere in the supply chain, Rowe said.
The PCR test takes a day to several days. Work continues on a quick test, but Monsanto had not perfected one at the time it shut down its GM wheat program in 2005.
U.S. WestBred seed company commercial lead Jeff Koscelny told commissioners the company has screened 80 percent of its varieties that were planted in 2011 and all have tested clean. The farmer had planted a WestBred variety and a variety developed at Washington State University and released through WSU, OSU and the University of Idaho. Monsanto owns WestBred.
Monsanto also went back through the documentation from its discontinuation of the program, which was all done according to plan, he said.
"We're as puzzled as everybody," Koscelny said. "We're dedicated to getting to the bottom of it. Nobody's more interested in getting to a resolution than we are. We really want to figure out what happened here and help the farmers get through this and back on the market."
Koscelny told members of the Oregon Wheat Growers League June 11 that a quick test would possibly take six to nine months to develop, based on his recollection of the time it took to develop quick tests for other Roundup Ready crops, such as soybeans in Brazil. Wheat may be more complicated and take longer, but until Monsanto gets into the process, how long cannot be determined, he said.
Asked whether Monsanto has already begun developing the test, Koscelny said there have been internal discussions, as it has been a repeated request from the industry.
"Certainly, when the industry asks, we take those requests seriously," Koscelny said.
Rowe said the industry may need to consider instituting an additional test for certified seed for the 2014 crop before it goes in the ground to show overseas customers the industry has taken steps to assure that the crop will be GM-free.
During the league meeting, Rowe said people are soon going to begin spending money on testing or handling grain in a particular way in response to the GM event regardless of whether USDA releases results of its investigation in time for harvest. He asked Koscelny how to go about tracking the costs in response to the GM event and begin a conversation with Monsanto about who will pay.
Koscelny said there must be a dialogue with the league, and said he would take the question back to headquarters.
League president Walter Powell said the approach must be industry-wide, including grain elevators and exporters, to find a satisfactory solution.