Franken Food The Chain Reaction Starts


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For global consumers now on high alert over a rogue strain of genetically modified wheat found in Oregon, the question is simple: How could this happen? For a cadre of critics of biotech crops, the question is different: How could it not?

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Franken Food The Chain Reaction Starts

  1. 1. Discovery of Rogue GMO Wheat RaisesMajor Red FlagsBy Carey Gillam and Julie IngwersenPublished May 31, 2013ReutersReutersM – For global consumers now on high alert over a rogue strain of genetically modifiedwheat found in Oregon, the question is simple: How could this happen? For a cadre of criticsof biotech crops, the question is different: How could it not?The questions arose after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday that itwas investigating the mysterious appearance of experimental, unapproved geneticallyengineered wheat plants on a farm in Oregon. The wheat was developed years ago byMonsanto Co to tolerate its Roundup herbicide, but the worlds largest seed companyscrapped the project and ended all field trials in 2004.
  2. 2. The incident joins a score of episodes in which biotech crops have eluded efforts to segregatethem from conventional varieties. But it marks the first time that a test strain of wheat, whichhas no genetically modified varieties on the market, has escaped the protocols set up by U.S.regulators to control it."These requirements are leaky and there is just no doubt about that. There is a fundamentalproblem with the system," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a scientist at the Union of ConcernedScientists who served on a biotech advisory subcommittee for the Food and DrugAdministration from 2002 to 2005.The discovery instantly roiled export markets, with Japan canceling a major shipment ofwheat, a quick reminder of what is at stake - an $8 billion U.S. wheat export business.Many fear the wheat most likely has been mixed in with conventional wheat for some time,but there are no valid commercial tests to verify whether wheat contains the biotech RoundupReady gene."A lot of people are on high alert now," said Mike Flowers, a cereal specialist at Oregon StateUniversity. "We cant really say if it is or isnt in other fields. We dont know."A month has passed since U.S. authorities first were alerted to the suspect plants in Oregon,yet it remains unclear how the strain developed. Monsanto officials said it is likely thepresence of the Roundup Ready genetic trait in wheat supplies is "very limited." Thecompany is conducting "a rigorous investigation" to find out how much, if any, wheat hasbeen contaminated by their biotech variety. U.S. regulators are also investigating.Bob Zemetra, one of the Oregon State University wheat researchers who first tested themystery wheat when an unnamed farmer mailed a plant sample, said there is no easy way toexplain the sudden appearance of the strain years after field tests ended.Cross-pollination seems unlikely, Zemetra said, because the field where the plants werediscovered was growing winter wheat, while Monsanto had field tested spring wheat. Therehadnt been any test sites in the area since at least 2004, making it unlikely the new geneticstrain would have been carried on the wind."I dont know that we are ever going to get a straight answer, or a satisfactory answer, on howit got there," Zemetra said.RIGOROUS TESTING PROTOCOLGovernment records show Monsanto conducted at least 279 field tests of herbicide-resistantwheat on over 4,000 acres in at least 16 states from 1994 until the company abandoned itsfield testing of wheat in 2004.Zemetra participated in Monsanto wheat trials a decade ago, while working as a wheatbreeder at the University of Idaho. When Monsanto decided to halt the testing, he said, thecompany had strict rules about handling test materials.
  3. 3. "Pretty much all that seed, and any program that was using it, either buried it, burned it orshipped it back to Monsanto, as part of the instructions for doing the field testing," he said. "Itwas a very rigorous testing protocol."Researchers were requested to watch the plots for "volunteer" growth for at least two yearsafter conclusion of the tests, Zemetra added.Zemetra first became aware of the wheat found in Oregon when a farmer brought in what hedescribed as several isolated wheat plants that had emerged after he sprayed Roundup on afallow field in eastern Oregon. The farmer had last harvested a crop of white winter wheatfrom the field in 2012.A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2008 highlighted several gaps inregulations designed to prevent genetically altered crops from escaping test plots.The reports conclusions were based on USDA data that there were 712 violations of itsregulations from 2003 to 2007, including 98 that could lead to a possible release ofunauthorized crops.The GAO study said the USDA lacked the resources to conduct routine testing on areasadjacent to the GMO crops. Instead, the report found, the government relied onbiotechnology companies to voluntarily provide test results.A 2005 report by the Office of Inspector General for the USDA was critical of governmentoversight of field tests of GMO crops. The report said there was a risk "that regulatedgenetically engineered organisms... will inadvertently persist in the environment before theyare deemed safe to grow without regulation."While the reports noted problems with government oversight, USDA itself lists 21 "majorincidents of noncompliance" from 1995 through 2011. Five of those involved Monsanto andincluded a failure by the company to properly monitor test fields, a failure to follow certaintest planting protocols and a failure to properly notify regulators about test activities.CANT GET RID OF ITDevelopers of biotech crops say testing shows they are safe for humans, animals and theenvironment, and farmers like Roundup Ready corn, soybeans and other crops becausegenetic alterations enable them to survive dousings of the herbicide.But critics of the so-called "Franken foods" point to scientific studies that claim links tohealth problems, while raising other environmental concerns connected to biotech crops thatrequire close scrutiny.Many international buyers will not accept genetically modified grain, and several U.S. foodcompanies also reject GMOs. When Monsanto in 2004 shelved its Roundup Ready wheatresearch, the move came amid a backlash from foreign buyers who said they would rejectU.S. wheat if DNA-altered wheat was commercialized.
  4. 4. Still, Alan Tracy, president of U.S. Wheat Associates, said despite the contaminationproblem, the wheat industry was supportive of continued research into biotech traits forwheat.Farmers are planting less wheat and more of other crops that have been genetically altered inways that can help farmers grow more grain, Tracy said."Our industry remains strongly supportive of continued research and development of biotechtraits for wheat," he said.But finding ways for conventional grain and biotech grain to co-exist will continue to fallshort if regulators dont force crop developers to contain their products, critics said."This whole idea of co-existence, that has been the No. 1 theme • at USDA. But you canthave co-existence when you cant control contamination," said Andrew Kimbrell, executivedirector at the Center for Food Safety, which has sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture totry to force tighter regulation of genetically modified crops.In the meantime, the search is on for the source of the mystery wheat.Jim Shroyer, a wheat agronomy expert at Kansas State University, said it was likely theRoundup Ready wheat has grown for years in eastern Oregon only to be discovered recently."Probably what happened is it got mixed in with a farmers field eight years ago and has beenthere ever since," Shroyer said. "That is the main reason we here in the top wheat state didnot want Roundup Ready. You cant get rid of it.Read more: