Wheat scare leaves farmers in limbo

Farm Forum

RITZVILLE, Wash. – The wheat in Eric Maier’s Eastern Washington fields is green and thigh high.

In a few weeks, the grains will have turned golden, and combines will cut and thresh them, preparing some of the roughly 150 million bushels Washington produces each year.

Most of it is for foreign consumption, and the good news is that Maier and others have already sold or insured much of this year’s crop.

They are trying to figure out whether they need to separate out some types of wheat, and what to plant later this year, now that Japan and South Korea have halted imports of a type of wheat grown predominantly in the Northwest.

Farmers are not much comforted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s announcement the week before last that the genetically modified, or GM, wheat found recently at an undisclosed Oregon farm was an isolated incident.

Agri-giant Monsanto stopped testing GM wheat almost a decade ago, and it was never certified for commercial growing.

Japan has skipped its regular order for soft-white wheat for three weeks, and said it will not resume buying until the USDA says more. South Korean buyers are waiting to hear from their government, which might also be waiting for more information from the U.S.

“We’re hearing Japan wants to speak directly with (the USDA), and they’re not talking to them, so the mess still goes on,” Maier said.

A small delegation from the Northwest wheat industry was in Washington, D.C., on June 18 to meet with USDA officials.

“We need our government to speak with the governments of these countries,” said Kara Rowe, a spokeswoman for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers whose family farms wheat about 50 miles north of Ritzville.

The delegation also asked the USDA to say publicly which type of wheat was found in Oregon, so growers can segregate it if necessary, to please major customers like Japan.

Although the USDA has not said what type of GM wheat it found in Oregon, the farm most recently grew soft white.

Farmworkers realized they might be dealing with GM wheat when the plants survived repeated dousings of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Subsequent tests verified it was GM wheat.

Rowe said no one expects an answer quickly.

“We sent a letter three weeks ago asking these same questions. They’re holding this very quiet and keeping it very hush-hush,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., is publicly pressuring the USDA.

She sent a letter on June 17 asking for more information about the type of wheat and saying she hears investigators have “failed to accept assistance” from key parties, including the Washington Crop Improvement Association and universities.

If Japan and South Korea do not resume buying Northwest wheat soon, Maier said, he might resort to planting another type of wheat and possibly canola.

“When I put seed in the ground this fall, I want to know what’s going on with this issue,” said Maier, who farms about 7,000 acres.

It is rare for big customers to completely stop buying wheat. One case occurred in 1980, when the U.S. imposed a grain embargo during the Cold War that temporarily froze sales to Russia.

Coming off a few years of good wheat crops and prices, Northwest wheat farmers’ biggest concern until now was a March frost that stunted some plants. They also hoped summer rains would bring a last growth spurt.

“Nobody knew it would not be Mother Nature” creating problems, Rowe said.

The price of soft-white wheat has dropped a little since the USDA announced its discovery in late May, and at least four lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto claiming economic losses.

Most of the field corn, soy and canola grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, but genetically modified wheat is not certified for commercial production.

Monsanto stopped tests to develop GM wheat almost a decade ago, when farmers said they did not want a wheat with the Roundup Ready trait. That trait allows farmers to spray their fields with Roundup, which kills almost any plant except ones that are genetically modified to withstand it. The trait does not appeal to farmers who include wheat crops in their rotation to give the fields a rest from Roundup.

And U.S. wheat farmers were also unenthusiastic about the trait because they were unsure that Canada would approve genetically modified wheat and were concerned about competition.

Eric Maier’s family has been growing wheat in the Ritzville area since the early 1900s, when his great-grandfather homesteaded where Maier lives now, seven miles north of Interstate 90.

A local grain elevator is named after one of his uncles, and nearby Wahl Road is named for part of a family that sued Monsanto in early June for losses because of the rogue GM wheat in Oregon.

If Maier decided to plant a different crop later this year, he, like many Washington wheat farmers, would be limited.

Most wheat farms do not irrigate, which puts soybeans and corn out of reach in Eastern Washington.

In the absence of more information from the USDA, rumors have spread about which farm in Oregon found the Roundup Ready wheat.

There are rumors about how the GM wheat got there, too.

“Everybody has their conspiracy theory, from anti-GM activists spreading the seeds, to it being a mistake or accident, to Monsanto doing something inappropriate,” Rowe said.

Wheat farmers’ position on genetic modification is simple but sometimes misunderstood.

Although the industry told Monsanto it did not want Roundup Ready wheat, it has expressed an interest in drought-resistant wheat and other traits that could come from genetic technology.

The wheat growers association, which represents about two-thirds of the state’s roughly 3,000 wheat farmers, opposes a Washington state measure expected to be on the ballot this fall that would require food products with GM ingredients to be labeled.

The group thinks the labeling issue should be addressed at the national level rather than piecemeal by states.

The opposition to Initiative 522 hired Winner & Mandabach Campaigns of California as consultants. The firm says it has won 29 of 31 ballot-measure votes in the past decade. One was the successful charter-school initiative in Washington last year.

The “No on 522” campaign has raised $949,923; the “yes” campaign has raised $1.65 million.

If the Washington campaign tracks a similar labeling measure in California last year, that money will shift dramatically. In California, Monsanto, Nestle, Hershey and others raised $46 million against organic food companies and other groups on the “yes” side, which raised $9.2 million.