CORVALLIS, Ore. — The discovery of a genetically modified strain of wheat is affecting international trade and Oregon’s half a billion dollar wheat industry. Japan suspended some imports of U.S. wheat Thursday after a farmer found the GMO crop in his eastern Oregon field. The USDA is now investigating. OSU Professor and wheat geneticist Bob Zemetra was part of the team that helped make the discovery.
The wheat was of the type developed by biotech company Monsanto, to be resistant to the herbicide roundup. The strain has since been made illegal to grow and Monsanto ended field trials nearly a decade ago. So how did it all of a sudden crop up again after all these years?
“That’s the big mystery. How did it get there, and then we have to figure out how much it’s in the market stream,” said Bob Zemetra.
One speculation is the modified seeds may have been blown into the field from Monsanto’s testing site, but Zemetra says that’s highly unlikely.
“Most of those research plots were grown under very restricted conditions. They were planted with a very large buffer zone to cut out cross pollination,” said Zemetra.
Although the government says the modified wheat doesn’t pose a danger to public health, the discovery could disrupt U.S. agricultural trade.
“The customers that buy our wheat are concerned about the presence of the genes, and hence, they are not interested in buying these products that are genetically modified,” said Zemetra.
The investigation is just beginning, but even when it’s complete, Zemetra says we may never get the answers we’re looking for.
“We may know how much is in the market, how little is in the market. We may know how to eliminate, but we may never find out how it got there,” said Zemetra.
The USDA says the genetically engineered wheat is safe to eat and there is no evidence that modified wheat entered the marketplace. The department is investigating how it ended up in the field and if there was any criminal wrongdoing.