WASHINGTON — Japan has suspended some imports of U.S. wheat after genetically engineered wheat was found growing in Oregon, a move that could have a big impact on Washington farmers.
The Agriculture Department announced the discovery of the modified wheat on Wednesday. No genetically engineered wheat has been approved for U.S. farming.
“Although this discovery was made in Oregon, there could be impacts to all Pacific Northwest wheat, including Washington,” said state agriculture chief Bud Hover on the department’s website.
“Washington’s wheat industry plays a significant role in our state’s agriculture economy and is currently the state’s third most valuable agriculture commodity, generating more than $1 billion in revenue each year and supporting 25,000 jobs across the state. Nearly 90 percent of all Washington-grown wheat is exported,” he said.
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Japan is one of the largest export markets for U.S. wheat growers. Katsuhiro Saka, a counselor at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., said Thursday that Japan had canceled orders of western white wheat from the Pacific Northwest and also of some feed-grade wheat.
“In most countries the unapproved genetically modified wheat would be a target of concern,” Saka said. “The Japanese people have similar kinds of concerns.”
Saka said the country was waiting for more information from the U.S. Agriculture Department as it investigates the discovery.
“It’s just going to be a bumpy road here,” said Adams County wheat farmer Eric Maier, who is also state and national legislative chairman for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.
“We want to have those customers confident and at ease with what they’re buying. I’ve got more questions than answers at this point,” he said.
USDA officials said the wheat found in Oregon was the same strain as a genetically modified wheat designed to be herbicide resistant. It was legally tested by seed giant Monsanto a decade ago but never approved. Monsanto stopped testing that product in Oregon and several other states in 2005.
When all that testing ended, the wheat industry basically said, ‘We don’t want to go there,’ ” said Glen Squires, who is CEO of both the Washington Association of Wheat Growers and the quasi-governmental Washington Grain Commission.
“This is why this thing that’s happened in Oregon has caught everybody by surprise,” Squires said. “That was eight or nine years ago. Where did this come from? Is it just this minor isolated little thing down there, or how widespread is it? Nobody knows.”
The Federal Grain Inspection Service issues a certificate to countries like Japan saying no genetically modified wheat is in production, and “that’s the certificate buyers like,” he said.
The U.S. Agriculture Department said the genetically engineered wheat is safe to eat and there is no evidence that modified wheat entered the marketplace. But the department is investigating how it ended up in the field, whether there was any criminal wrongdoing and whether its growth is widespread.
Japan is not alone in its distaste for modified wheat. Many countries around the world will not accept imports of genetically modified foods.
U.S. consumers have shown increasing interest in avoiding them as well. Several state legislatures are considering bills that would require them to be labeled so consumers know what they are eating.
Initiative 522, which is expected to appear on the Washington ballot this fall would require labeling of food products with genetically modified ingredients.
The modified wheat was discovered when field workers at an Eastern Oregon wheat farm were clearing acres for the bare offseason when they came across a patch of wheat that didn’t belong. The workers sprayed it and sprayed it, but the wheat wouldn’t die. Their confused boss grabbed a few stalks and sent it to a university lab early this month.
A few weeks later, Oregon State wheat scientists made a startling discovery: The wheat was genetically modified, in clear violation of U.S. law. They contacted the USDA, which ran more tests and confirmed their discovery.
The tests confirmed that the plants were a strain developed by Monsanto to resist its Roundup Ready herbicides.
USDA officials declined to speculate whether the modified seeds blew into the field from a testing site or whether they were somehow planted or taken there, and they would not identify the farmer or the farm’s location. They said they had not received any other reports of discoveries of modified wheat.
Material from Seattle Times business reporter Melissa Allison
is included in this report.