Japan’s decision last week to suspend imports of wheat from the U.S. sent waves of concern throughout the Northwest wheat industry for one big reason: the type involved.
Northwest farmers are the main U.S. growers of soft white wheat, the type Japan suspended last week because genetically modified wheat plants were found growing on a farm in Oregon.
Japan ordered other types, but a wheat-import official told The Wall Street Journal it will “monitor the progress” of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) investigation before deciding about soft white wheat. Japan is a major wheat importer, buying about $1 billion in wheat each year from the U.S.
Although the USDA has not said what type of genetically modified wheat it found in Oregon, the farm most recently grew soft white. Farmworkers realized they might be dealing with a type of modified wheat when the plants survived repeated dousings of Monsanto’s Roundup recently. Subsequent tests verified it was genetically modified wheat.
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Monsanto said the unidentified northeast Oregon farm is miles from where the company tested genetically modified wheat almost a decade ago. The wheat Monsanto had tested was designed to withstand treatment by the herbicide Roundup.
“They said most test plots were destroyed before they produced a head (the top of the wheat plant, which produces kernels),” said Randy Suess, a Whitman County wheat farmer and a representative to the Washington Grain Commission.
“That’s why this is so strange,” Suess said. “I have a feeling (Japan) will come back in the market.”
Wheat markets appear to agree. Futures dropped slightly after the news, but rebounded on Friday.
Although Japan does not want genetically modified wheat, it does import genetically engineered papayas, resistant to a devastating plant disease. It also imports genetically modified corn, soybeans and canola, though it is unclear how much of that is used for human consumption.
Genetically modified wheat has not been approved for commercial growing, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in 2004 it is as safe as genetically modified crops that have been approved.
The impact on the U.S. wheat market depends on how widespread the problem is.
After the U.S. rice crop was contaminated by a test version of genetically altered rice in 2006, importers in Europe and Japan banned U.S. rice, and Bayer CropScience agreed to pay farmers $750 million.
In 2009, the European Union stopped imports of flaxseed from Canada after a genetically modified version that was ordered destroyed in 2001 was detected in shipments. Although China helped by buying most of the flax in early 2010, the Canadian flaxseed industry lost market share
While the USDA conducts its investigation, the nonprofit Non-GMO Project in Bellingham has started testing wheat products and will test farm samples from a handful of farms in Washington and Oregon.
The project requires testing of ingredients before bestowing its “Non-GMO Project Verified” label on about 10,000 products from more than 600 companies.
If the problem is widespread, Executive Director Megan Westgate expects to know soon.
Monsanto conducted field trials of genetically modified wheat in Washington from 1999 to 2005, according to spokesman Tom Helscher.
“There were extensive stewardship protocols for each of the trials,” he said in an email. “We insured adequate isolation throughout the trials. Also included were extensive steps to insure the test material was fully removed from the field or destroyed after the trial was completed.”
The company decided not to market genetically modified wheat after the industry said it was not interested.
In part, that was because U.S. wheat farmers were unsure that Canada would approve genetically modified wheat and were concerned about competition, said Steve Mercer, a spokesman for the nonprofit U.S. Wheat Associates, which works on export-market development.
The Roundup Ready trait — which allows crops to survive while weeds are killed by the herbicide Roundup — does not appeal to farmers who include wheat crops in their rotation to give the fields a rest from Roundup. That rest is “to help reduce the chance of [weed] resistance being developed” to the herbicide, Mercer said.
Wheat farmers are interested in other traits that could come from genetic modification, he said, such as drought resistance or the ability to use nitrogen better.
Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @AllisonSeattle.