Unapproved genetically engineered wheat has been found growing on a farm in Oregon, federal officials said Wednesday, a development that could disrupt U.S. exports of the grain.
The U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) said the wheat was of the type developed by Monsanto to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, also known as glyphosate. Such wheat was field-tested in 16 states, including Oregon, from 1998 through 2005, but Monsanto dropped the project before the wheat was ever approved for commercial planting.
The department said it was not known yet whether any of the wheat got into the food supply or into grain shipments. Even if it did, officials said, it would pose no threat to health.
The Food and Drug Administration reviewed the wheat and found no safety problems with it in 2004.
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Still, the mere presence of the genetically modified plant could cause some countries to turn away exports of U.S. wheat. About 90 percent of Oregon’s wheat crop is exported.
While most U.S. soybeans and corn are genetically modified to be herbicide-resistant or insect-resistant or both, those crops are largely consumed by animals or made into processed foods.
Wheat is consumed directly by people, and there has been more consumer resistance.
No genetically engineered wheat has been approved in any country.
Monsanto dropped its development of genetically modified wheat in 2004 at least, in part, because of concerns from U.S. farmers that use of such a crop would endanger U.S. wheat exports to countries that shun such products, including European nations.
However, Monsanto has resumed research into genetically modified wheat, in part because some wheat farmers say it is needed to keep the crop competitive with corn and soybeans.
The discovery of the unauthorized wheat in Oregon could play into a vote in nearby Washington state later this year on a ballot initiative that would require labeling of genetically modified foods.
Michael Firko, acting deputy administrator for biotechnology regulatory services in the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said countries that import a lot of U.S. wheat were being notified.
Firko said the genetically modified plants were so-called volunteer plants, meaning they were growing in a place they were not wanted, like a weed.
When the farmer tried to kill them with glyphosate, “a small percentage of them didn’t die,’’ Firko said. The farmer had them tested at Oregon State University, which found the Roundup-resistant gene in them. That finding has since been confirmed by the USDA.
Firko said federal agents were now trying determine whether there was any more genetically engineered wheat.
He said that same farmer — who is not being identified — had another field two miles away that had been planted with the same wheat, also in the winter of 2011. About 50 volunteer wheat plants found in that field have also been tested and no genetically engineered plants were detected, he said. Firko said it was not clear how the wheat appeared in the farmer’s field. The last field test of that type of wheat in Oregon was in 2001, he said.