By Eric Mortenson
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledges a GMO wheat investigation, now 15 months old, may not answer every question.
PORTLAND — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he expects a report on the GMO wheat found in Eastern Oregon last year in the “very near term” but cautioned it may contain some question marks.
“I’m not sure we’re going to have every answer,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack, in Portland to discuss the USDA’s new Regional Conservation Partnership Program, said his department is working in the meantime to foster coexistence between growers of conventional and genetically engineered crops. Vilsack revived the department’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture for that purpose.
The discovery of GMO wheat last year temporarily disrupted the international export market crucial to Pacific Northwest growers. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been working on the investigation for 15 months.
Producers have consistently said they don’t want markets threatened again by having a “bomb” dropped on them — a report that shows GMO contamination elsewhere, for example — during harvest this year.
The investigation began in April 2013 when an Eastern Oregon grower noticed that some volunteer wheat plants he sprayed with glyphosate did not die as expected. The 125-acre field had been planted with certified seed in October 2011 and harvested in the summer of 2012, and was lying fallow when they farmer sprayed it — a common practice to control weeds.
Tests at Oregon State University, confirmed by APHIS, showed the plants were a “Roundup Ready” variety developed by Monsanto Co. to withstand the key ingredient in its herbicide.
Monsanto field-tested the variety in 16 states, including Oregon, from 1998 to 2005, but withdrew its application to have it approved because farmers objected. The last testing in Oregon was in 2001, however, and the field where the plants were found was not a test site, which only deepened the mystery.
Buyers in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the chief markets for Pacific Northwest wheat, are strongly opposed to GMO food products.
Monsanto says its testing protocol was rigidly controlled and that genetically engineered crops pose no hazard to food or feed. APHIS says there’s been no more GMO wheat found and no evidence that it got into commerce. Beyond that, the agency has been silent.