GM wheat sprouts another round of Monsanto criticism

Published online: Jun 08, 2013

It hasn't been a good week for Monsanto. Over the Memorial Day weekend, protesters rallied in dozens of U.S. cities against the company for the genetically modified seeds it produces. Organizers claim the "March Against Monsanto" protests were held in 436 cities in 52 countries.

The ink was barely dry on newspapers reporting those protests when the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced that a genetically-modified, glyphosate-resistant wheat variety was found in volunteer wheat growing on a farm in Oregon. "Roundup Ready" crops have been genetically modified to include a gene that works to make that crop resistant to the broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate, also known by its branded name, Roundup.

Those wheat sprouts were big news because the USDA never approved GM wheat, and many of America's trading partners are opposed to GM crops. Grain traders immediately warned that the discovery could hurt export prospects for U.S. wheat.

Indeed, half of U.S.-grown wheat is exported, and major buyers include Japan, Mexico, Europe, South Korea, Egypt, Nigeria and the Philippines. Reuters reported on Thursday that Japan has already cancelled a tender offer to buy U.S. western white wheat, while other Asian wheat buyers were said to be closely monitoring the situation.

"We will refrain from buying western white and feed wheat effective today," Toru Hisadome, a Japanese farm ministry official in charge of wheat trading, told Reuters.

Cattlemen who remember the Japanese response to America's first incidence of BSE 10 years ago may not be surprised to their response to the GM wheat incident. Still, the Japanese response is an over-reaction that needlessly scares consumers and further sullies Monsanto's reputation (more on that later).

But there's a huge difference between the BSE case of December 2003 and the GM wheat incident. There was actually a cow discovered that had BSE. It didn't enter the food chain, and the incident provided evidence that safety programs designed to protect our food supply worked. But we didn't find GM wheat grain. The discovery was GM wheat sprouts. That's a long ways from grain destined for export.

The discovery of the GM wheat was made by an Oregon farmer who took to the field this spring to kill volunteer wheat sprouts by spraying them with glyphosate, and some of the sprouts unexpectedly survived. Scientists found the wheat was a strain field-tested from 1998 to 2005 and deemed safe before Monsanto withdrew it from the regulatory approval process. Today, no GM wheat varieties are approved for general planting in the U.S. or elsewhere.

U.S. farmers, and many around the world, have embraced the technology of GM corn, soybeans and cotton. The majority of those crops grown in the U.S. are the genetically modified-varieties.

For its part, Monsanto has pledged to cooperate fully with the USDA investigation into the incident in Oregon. The company, however, is likely bracing for another round of piling on by the media. Much of that criticism is unwarranted.

(Full disclosure: Drovers/CattleNetwork receives no advertising or PR money from Monsanto.)

Despite wide-spread scientific assurances about the safety of GM crops (including the Food and Drug Administration's confirmation of the food and feed safety of Roundup Ready wheat), Monsanto decided to end its GM wheat program nine years ago because it was concerned buyers of U.S. wheat would reject the technology and hurt the U.S. wheat market.

"While USDA's results are unexpected, there is considerable reason to believe that the presence of the Roundup Ready trait in wheat, if determined to be valid, is very limited," the company said.

In summary, we have the discovery of some wheat sprouts that may be from a strain on which field research was discontinued nine years ago. Since that time over 500 million acres of wheat have been planted in the U.S. without any other incidents. Further, the company in question has pledged to assist in the investigation into these sprouts which did not produce grain which did not enter the export market.

The only thing this incident appears to have produced is more fodder for critics of Monsanto and GM technology.