The Pacific Northwest wheat harvest begins in less than a month, and growers are getting antsy for the results of federal tests on genetically modified wheat discovered this spring on an Oregon farm. The wheat containing an experimental gene engineered by Monsanto (MON), called CP4, was last tested in Oregon in 2001 and was designed to resist a Monsanto herbicide. Its surprise appearance in April—when an eastern Oregon farmer tried unsuccessfully to kill it—has jolted the U.S. wheat industry and made many growers fearful about attracting foreign buyers as the harvest comes in.
“The frustration out here is that we just haven’t gotten any new information from the USDA,” says Byron Behne, marketing manager for Northwest Grain Growers, a co-op in Walla Walla, Wash. “Without that clarity the Japanese aren’t going to resume their imports; the Koreans probably aren’t.” Oregon, Washington, and Idaho export 90 percent of their annual crop of soft white wheat, a lot of it typically to noodle-hungry Japan. Most of that wheat will be harvested and ready to send abroad by August, making for a bit of a nervous summer for those riding the combines. Japan has already banned soft white wheat, and the European Union has said it wants to see testing before it buys any (although Europe is a miniscule market for the variety).
One outcome of the genetically modified wheat discovery may well be new genetic testing requirements for wheat exports—if a simple, effective test can be devised, Behne says. In a public-relations effort this week, Monsanto officials said they had tested 50 varieties of wheat seed planted in Oregon and Washington in 2011, as well as 600 samples of the two seed types the Oregon farmer had planted. None of the tests (PDF) detected the experimental gene, Monsanto said, stressing in its statements that the modified wheat had been restricted to a small area. Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety also tested 40 samples of wheat and five samples of milled flour from Oregon and found none of the modified wheat, according to a report on Friday from U.S. Wheat Associates, a farmers’ group.
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