The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) discovered an unapproved variety of glyphosate-resistant GMO wheat in samples taken from a farm in Oregon. The variety was the same as one that Monsanto grew in test plots in 16 states from 1998 to 2005. There are no genetically engineered wheat varieties currently approved for sale in the U.S. or any other country.
Michael Firko, Acting Deputy Administrator for APHIS’ Biotechnology Regulatory Services states in a USDA press release: “We are taking this situation very seriously and have launched a formal investigation. Our first priority is to as quickly as possible determine the circumstances and extent of the situation and how it happened. We are collaborating with state, industry, and trading partners on this situation and are committed to providing timely information about our findings. USDA will put all necessary resources towards this investigation.”
Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba said in a statement that the discovery is “a very serious development that could have major trade ramifications. [...] I am concerned that a highly regulated plant material such as genetically modified wheat somehow was able to escape into a crop field.”
This is not the first time a US crop has been contaminated by GMOs not approved by the USDA. In one high profile case in August 2006, the USDA announced that Bayer’s genetically engineered LibertyLink rice was found in two popular varieties of US long-grain rice. The discovery led to rejection by foreign markets and a corresponding dramatic decline in US rice prices. The LibertyLink contamination eventually resulted in a $750 million legal settlement between Germany-based Bayer AG and its affiliates and US rice farmers. To this day, European Union purchases of US rice remain at only a small fraction of what they were before the 2006 incident.
The US wheat market has similar vulnerability. According to the Oregon Wheat Commission, Oregon exports 90 percent of the wheat it produces. More than 60 countries now require labeling of GMOs, and international regulations on import and sale of unapproved GMO varieties are strict. If more US farms are found to be contaminated with GMOs, wheat exports will almost certainly suffer.
The Non-GMO Project, one of only a few labeling organizations for GMOs, announced it would coordinate a surveillance testing strategy to help assess the extent of the contamination. The testing plan includes sampling wheat products from the national retail market as well as raw plant material directly from Oregon to detect the GMO wheat. The tests were scheduled to begin immediately.
According to Megan Westgate, Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project, “Our priority right now is to assure the integrity of Non-GMO Project Verified products and to assist in the USDA’s investigation. The current situation is yet another reminder of the serious risks posed by open-air field trials of unapproved GMO crops.”