In late May, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) confirmed that a genetically-modified, glyphosate-resistant wheat variety that Monsanto Co. field tested from 1998 to 2005 was present in volunteer wheat on one farm in Oregon. Late last week, American wheat farmers and a food safety advocacy group responded by filing a lawsuit against biotech seed developer Monsanto, accusing the company of failing to protect the U.S. wheat market from contamination by its unauthorized wheat. According to the Reuters article going around the internet:
The petition, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, seeks class-action status to represent other farmers it says were harmed by lower wheat prices as some foreign buyers have shied away from U.S. wheat. It names Clarmar Farms Inc., farmer Tom Stahl, and the Center for Food Safety as plaintiffs. The suit follows a similar action filed Monday by a Kansas wheat farmer, alleging that he and other growers have been hurt financially by the discovery of an unapproved biotech wheat that Monsanto said it stopped testing and shelved nine years ago.
The APHIS included a statement about the safety of this Monsanto Co. variety or “trait” in its report, confirming that the material detected is as safe for food and feed use as non-biotech wheat varieties now on the market. In addition, APHIS stated that at this time, there is no information that indicates that this regulated trait has entered the commercial supply chain.
The trait in question is called a “Roundup Ready” crop, and it has 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. No Roundup Ready wheat, or any other genetically modified wheat, has been authorized by USDA for commercial sale in the United States or anywhere else in the world.
Regardless, buyers in Asia and Europe shunned U.S. wheat purchases after the discovery of the rogue wheat in Oregon. South Korea and Japan even suspended some U.S. wheat purchases, while the European Union said it would step up testing.
According to a National Association of Wheat Growers press release, Monsanto did conduct research on Roundup Ready spring wheat in the past, but withdrew its application for deregulation of the trait in wheat in 2004. APHIS will be investigating this detection to determine how this trait appeared outside of a regulated environment. We quote the press release:
Although a Roundup Ready trait for wheat was never commercialized, in 2004 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that the Roundup Ready trait in wheat did not pose a health risk in food or animal feed. We are confident that U.S. wheat, wheat flour and wheat foods remain safe, wholesome and nutritious for people around the world.
We know it is important to understand how this situation occurred, and we have confidence that APHIS will be able to determine that as soon as possible. Nothing is more important than the trust we’ve earned with our customers at home and around the world by providing a reliable supply of high-quality wheat. As industry leaders, we will cooperate with authorities in the United States and international markets to understand the facts surrounding this incident and help minimize its impact.
Other farmers and organizations were not as accommodating. The lawsuit mentioned does not seek specific monetary damages but asks for “compensatory damages,” punitive damages and that Monsanto be required to decontaminate equipment, storage and transportation facilities. Monsanto said that in ending its field testing, the company instructed test participants to destroy the GMO wheat or ship it to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s seed storage facility in Colorado. Company officials have said they have no idea how their biotech wheat could be growing in Oregon.
We’ll keep you updated on how this plays out.