Japan defers Western white wheat purchases until new test in place

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

Japan has deferred new purchases of Western white wheat until a validated test for the genetically engineered wheat under investigation in Washington state is in place, a U.S. Wheat Associates spokesman says.

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is investigating 22 genetically engineered wheat plants found in a fallow field in Washington state.

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.

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.

No genetically engineered wheat is commercially available. There is no evidence of the 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.

Produced in the Pacific Northwest, Western white wheat is a blend of soft white wheat and club wheat, a subclass of soft white, and sold to customers in Japan and Taiwan.

Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries will resume purchases once a test designed by Monsanto and validated by USDA is ready, said Steve Mercer, vice president of communications for U.S. Wheat. Japan has been testing its 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.

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 that are already in-store in Japan to mills, pending the set-up and implementation of the new test kits, Mercer said.

Industry members hope open communication with overseas customers will keep the event from damaging 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.”

“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. “It’s really easy to frighten people about these things, and there’s no need for it, at all.”

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

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.”

Jirava suggests farmers use an alternative to Roundup. Other herbicides are known to kill Roundup-resistant wheat, he said.

“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 on 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 and 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.

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.

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 in a joint statement.

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.

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

“I would hope we all stay above board and are up front 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.’”

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