Wheat trading partners react to GM wheat announcement
By Jennifer M. Latzke
On May 29, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant and Health Inspection Service announced preliminary tests that confirmed the presence of volunteer genetically modified hard red winter wheat. The wheat was a discontinued experimental line from Monsanto that contained a glyphosate-resistance trait.
The effects from this announcement are being felt internationally and domestically.
Even though the Food and Drug Administration completed a voluntary consultation on the safety of food and feed derived from this experimental wheat variety in 2004, and deemed it “safe for food and feed use as non GE-wheat varieties now on the market,” some international trading partners are proceeding with caution.
“The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries temporarily suspended tenders for soft white wheat,” said Steve Mercer, communications director for U.S. Wheat Associates. “They did go ahead and buy hard red spring and hard red winter wheat this week.”
This shows USW that Japan is not interested in a full ban on all U.S. wheat imports, but rather that they see this as a regional issue, he added.
“The wheat buyers in Korea have suspended soft white purchases for the time, too,” Mercer said.
The Foreign Agricultural Service and Federal Grain Inspection Service report that on average, over the last five years, the Pacific Northwest has exported an average of 5 million metric tons of white wheat. Korea was the top buyer of wheat from the PNW last year, with Japan in a close second.
Meanwhile, the European Union has asked for a rapid test method it can use on U.S. wheat stocks it currently holds. Even though, as Mercer explained, for the past four to five years there has been no wheat exported to the EU from the PNW other than a limited amount in containers. And of that wheat, virtually none was soft white wheat, which would be the category in question.
Monsanto, in a blog post June 3, reported that it has provided a validated testing method for the trait to the USDA, as well as to governmental regulators in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the European Union. This new test is more reliable than PCR, strip tests or dipstick tests that are already in use to detect the Roundup Ready trait in other crops. Those tests can provide false positives if used on wheat, the company said.
“We have cooperated with the USDA and other regulatory authorities so that they can continue to have full confidence in U.S. wheat exports,” said Philip Miller, vice president of regulatory affairs for Monsanto. “While the USDA has noted that they have no evidence that the original Roundup Ready wheat trait has entered commerce, our support is aimed at ensuring that the U.S. wheat industry and wheat farmers do not experience disruptions in exports.”
On June 3, wheat farmer Ernest Barnes, of Elkhart, Kan., filed a civil lawsuit against Monsanto in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas.
The lawsuit alleges gross negligence on the part of Monsanto and seeks compensation for damages caused by the discovery of GM wheat in Oregon, which the suit cites as downward spiraling wheat export futures prices.
And yet, exports have remained fairly steady since the announcement, including hard red winter wheat exports from Kansas.
The 25-page court document claims Barnes and other wheat farmers have “lost money and (their) livelihoods (are) now at serious risk as a result of Monsanto’s negligence or gross negligence.”
“Monsanto has failed our nation’s wheat farmers,” said Stephen Susman, lead attorney on the case for Susman Godfrey law firm. “We believe Monsanto knew of the risks its genetically altered wheat posed and failed to protect farmers and their crops from those risks.”
The Associated Press reported that David Snively, Monsanto executive vice president and general counsel, made a written statement in regard to the lawsuit.
“Tractor-chasing lawyers have prematurely filed suit without any evidence of fault and in advance of the crop’s harvest,” Snively said.
The company contends that there was more than ample care taken to prevent contamination after the research project was discontinued and it will present a vigorous defense.
As it stands today, there is no commercially available genetically modified wheat on the market. But there are several companies in the race to develop the first, and USW and the National Association of Wheat Growers continue to support the development of a GM wheat variety.
“We continue to be supportive of the development, but there are a lot of principles to go through before commercialization,” Mercer said. The first is likely 6 to 10 years out, and wheat farmer leaders in both organizations are working with trait providers on the deregulation of traits and approvals.
In May 2009, nine grower groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia, the top three exporters of wheat in the world, signed a joint statement agreeing to a synchronized commercialization of biotech traits in their wheat crops.
Since APHIS made its announcement, USW has been in touch with its counterparts and has shared the updates it’s receiving from APHIS on the status of the investigation. “We are emphasizing with them, and all of our customers, that USDA made clear that there is no new information to suggest that this trait in this wheat has gone any farther than one field with those few volunteer wheat plants that have been confirmed to have the trait,” Mercer said.
If there is a take-home message from this, it is that the system works, Mercer said. “APHIS was contacted and it jumped on it and is making a very thorough investigation,” he said. “They had nine people on the ground out there and they are taking this seriously. That should be a comfort to our trading partners that the government is following through.”
Mercer cautioned against speculation in the days to come. “Speculation isn’t beneficial to anyone,” he said. “It’s not beneficial to farmers, to buyers and merchandisers and our customers here or overseas. I hope people will wait for more information from APHIS and we are counting on that to shed light on it.”
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.