WASHINGTON, May 29, 2013- The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced today it is conducting an “active investigation” into a genetically engineered variety of glyphosate-resistant wheat that was found growing in an Oregon wheat field.

No GE strain of wheat is currently approved for the U.S. or global markets. Michael Firko, Acting Deputy Administrator of APHIS Biotechnology Regulatory Services, said USDA scientists verified results that the discovered plants were resistant to the commonly used weed killer glyphosate.

Firko says USDA is “very serious” about the this investigation, which seeks to uncover “the extent of this and how it happened.”  

It is also confirmed that the glyphosate-resistant plants are the same variety as a wheat strain, or “event,” field tested by Monsanto. Firko said the company had requested to field test GE wheat from 1998-2005, but no other field tests have occurred since 2005.  USDA confirmed that field tests did occur in Oregon, but did not say whether the field in question is the same as or near a former field test site.

He noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviewed the particular strain of wheat in 2004 and found no food safety concerns. “FDA completed a consultation of the variety that verified the wheat is as safe for food and feed as non-GE varieties that year,” Firko said. 

Monsanto had petitioned the wheat variety for deregulation at USDA’s APHIS, but withdrew the petition before the agency completed any assessments.

The unnamed Oregon farmer had planted winter wheat in the fall of 2011 and harvested the crop in spring of 2012, Firko explained.  The field lay fallow for one year until the farmer, preparing for the spring 2013 planting, sprayed the “volunteer,” or unwanted, wheat plants with glyphosate. The farmer sent the surviving plants to Oregon State University, which notified USDA of the discovery on May 3.

USDA officials said the agency is conducting an active on-the-ground investigation, which could include tests of neighboring farms. The discovery of the glyphosate-resistant volunteer wheat is currently limited to one field on one farm. 

Monsanto said this afternoon in a statement that it will work with USDA to "get to the bottom" of the Oregon incident. The seed giant said it had not yet verified USDA's findings because the agency has not provided it with its own samples. Monsanto stressed that "the glyphosate-tolerance gene used in Roundup Ready wheat has a long history of safe use."

The U.S. Wheat Associates said in a statement that it is confident that APHIS will be able to determine how the situation occurred as soon as possible. 

“Nothing is more important than the trust we’ve earned with our customers at home and around the world by providing a reliable supply of high-quality wheat,” noted the statement from US Wheat Associates and the National Association of Wheat Growers. “As industry leaders, we will cooperate with authorities in the United States and international markets to understand the facts surrounding this incident and help minimize its impact.” 

USDA Acting Deputy Secretary Michael Scuse said he contacted the state agriculture directors in Oregon, Washington and Idaho to communicate the findings. He said he had reached out to major Asian trading partners, as well as Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and Mexican Secretary of Agriculture Enrique Martínez y Martínez. Scuse did not share any feedback from any of the trading partners contacted.

“Hopefully our trading partners will be very understanding,” Scuse said, emphasizing that “this is not a food or feed issue.”

“The next step is to develop a rapid test for grain of GE glyphosate resistant wheat variety,” Firko noted. “Currently there are none on the market.”

John Pitchford, Director of Office of International Affairs at the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), said he has “no information at this point that supports that there is this wheat trait in commercial stocks of seed or wheat."

USDA has tested DNA extracted from tissue from wheat plants collected in the field by APHIS investigators, but seeds or kernels of suspect wheat are not available at this time, according to a fact sheet issued by USDA.

If USDA’s investigation finds a violation of the Plant Protection Act, fines could be as high as $1 million or criminal prosecution could be justified if criminal intent is discovered, Firko noted. 

This story was updated at 3:40 pm on 5/29/2013 and will be updated continually. 


For more news, go to www.agri-pulse.com.