Discovery of genetically modified wheat creates stir among supporters, critics

Farm Forum

ST. LOUIS — It was revealed last month that regulators are trying to figure out why a rogue patch of genetically modified wheat popped up on a Montana farm. The news startled GMO critics and supporters — although for different reasons.

“It caught a few of us off guard, consumers and farmers alike,” said Kyle Brase, president of the Illinois Wheat Association and a fifth-generation farmer in Hamel.

Brase counts himself a supporter of the efforts by Creve Coeur-based Monsanto and other biotech companies to develop genetically modified crops. But he said the unexpected discovery is the sort of thing that could shake the confidence of buyers in nations that reject such crops.

“That would be a huge blow to us as producers,” Brase said.

Some opponents of genetic tinkering see the incident as just another example of the inherent dangers of delving into this arena.

The incident involved the discovery of herbicide-resistant wheat on a research tract owned by Montana State University and used previously for testing by Monsanto. Those trials ended more than a decade ago, raising questions about how the rogue wheat came to life.

Monsanto has said little about the incident. In a statement published on its website, the company says it is cooperating with investigators.

It’s thought the plants are so-called volunteers — plants that grow from seeds that fall to the ground during a previous harvest.

But that shows how difficult it is to keep field trials secure, said Dave Murphy, executive director of Food Democracy Now, a national organization opposed to GMOs.

“Contamination is inevitable with nature,” Murphy said. “Biology doesn’t listen to a memo from St. Louis.”

The incident bears similarities to one in Oregon last year, involving Monsanto-modified wheat that popped up in a field where it was never intentionally planted by the company. That discovery sent shock waves through the global wheat market, as Japan and South Korea both halted purchases of U.S. wheat. The U.S. exports roughly half of its wheat, with much of it going to countries with zero-tolerance policies toward genetically modified grains.

That crisis was averted when buyers resumed purchases after being reassured that no modified grains had infiltrated the commercial pipeline.

In this latest incident in Montana, the U.S. Department of Agriculture moved quicker with its assurances. At the same time the discovery was announced, USDA officials made it clear that commercial stores were not affected.

Perhaps that’s why there’s been no backlash from overseas buyers, said Fred Kolb, professor of plant breeding and genetics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Maybe the alarm bells didn’t go off as quickly because they recognize it hasn’t gotten into the commercial trade,” Kolb said.

Wheat is the third largest row crop in both Missouri and Illinois, though it runs a distant third to corn and soybeans in both states.

Still, there are critics who say they are troubled by what the USDA’s announcement didn’t include.

At the same time the agency revealed the Montana discovery, it also released the extensive findings from its investigation into the Oregon episode. The report includes nearly 13,000 pages developed, in part, through some 300 interviews with farmers, grain handlers and researchers.

It was, in the words of the agency, “one of the most thorough and scientifically detailed investigations in the history of our organization.”

Yet investigators say they still don’t know how the modified wheat made it onto that Oregon farm.

That’s not satisfactory to Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, which wants stronger rules governing such genetic research.

“It underscores how loose the regulatory process is,” Freese said.

He points to a similar incident in 2006, when thousands of rice farmers sued Bayer CropScience after its unapproved LibertyLink rice was found in the U.S. market. The company settled the suits five years later for $750 million.

As in the Oregon case, investigators were unable to determine how the contamination occurred.

“This is the pattern, unfortunately, that we are seeing. It’s very troubling,” Freese said.