On Friday May 31st, NBC News posted a report from Reuters that South Korea has suspended wheat imports after the discovery of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Wheat growing in a fallowed field of an Oregon farmer. Problem is, Monsanto only field-tested the strain until May, 2004 when the Canadian Wheat Board, then the world’s largest grain seller, informed Monsanto it’s 10 largest red spring wheat buyers, including Japan, the U.K. and Malaysia, wouldn’t buy modified (genetically altered) varieties of wheat.
Out of market concerns Monsanto pulled their GM Roundup Ready Wheat from the USDA’s approval process. So how did this discontinued strain of Monsanto wheat end up on a farm in Oregon nine years after the company stopped working with this strain? Has this modified strain found its way into the commercial wheat crop?
On such concerns, Japan too has suspended imports of western-white wheat from the U.S., and canceled an order while the USDA is sending investigators to undisclosed locations throughout the western United States. The story is just beginning and the weeks ahead could prove challenging for the U.S. agriculture business and Monsanto.
From BusinessWeek.com come words of caution.
“I would imagine even the perception that GM wheat is out there would have some impact on our exports” with so many countries “putting their foot down on not accepting” gene-altered crops, Ryan Larsen, an assistant professor of agribusiness and applied economics at North Dakota State University in Fargo, said by telephone. “This continues that bad persona that GM crops have. It allows people to say ‘See, it’s out there and we’re not being told it’s out there.’ ”
The economics of global agricultural is already reacting. In the last few hours of Friday’s trading Monsanto stock fell 4%. The discovery of a never sold or distributed strain of genetically altered wheat nine years after the last test raises concerns over the long term consequences to natural wheat. Has this strain made its way into the commercial wheat crop?
Critics of the idea of genetic alteration have long argued that once a gene is planted in an open field it will become part of the ecosystem. In the infancy of the GM industry field tests of altered plants had to be done inside controlled greenhouses over concern of the impact on other species.
Even today Monsanto burns test fields attempting to prevent the unwanted spread of altered genes. Friday’s news raises doubts about Monsanto’s test controls and seems to confirm the worst fears of contamination of natural varieties.
As the story goes, last month a farmer in Oregon, applied Roundup to clear fallowed acreage. Roundup kills grasses; wheat is a grass. But the Roundup did not kill stalks of wild wheat mixed in with various weeds. Genetic analysis determined that the wheat was a genetically altered strain Monsanto had been working over a decade ago.
According to a KPBS report, the USDA, eager to squelch the spreading concern, quickly declared the wheat as safe while also claiming the commercial wheat crop was free of any unapproved GM strains. But the USDA’s opinion is apparently based solely on Monsanto’s original test data. Test data submitted after Monsanto had told the USDA they were not taking the strain to market. How seriously did the USDA considered the test information in light of Monsanto’s decision to not market the wheat? And with the political support GM strains receive in Congress, the USDA has been encouraged to shorten their GM review process.
Reporter Steven Mufson of the Washington Post on Saturday reported on the political support Monsanto and GM strains have in Washington.
Though there have been widespread protests about genetically modified foods, many lawmakers in Congress support alteration of crops. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, in 2011 hailed the Agriculture Department’s decision to deregulate genetically modified alfalfa. “Alfalfa was one of nearly two dozen genetically modified crops awaiting USDA evaluation and approval — a bottlenecked process that hinders growth and progress”
In a statement issued at the time Senator Stabenow said “Alfalfa was one of nearly two dozen genetically modified crops awaiting USDA evaluation and approval — a bottlenecked process that hinders growth and progress…” According to the Washington Post story (6/1/13) “Stabenow received $570,515 from agribusiness political action committees in 2012”. She was re-elected to a third term in 2012.
Senator Stabenow’s mentions the “nearly two dozen” genetically modified crops awaiting approval. There are already a number of GM crops in wide use. Besides alfalfa, there’s cotton, corn, soy.
Other nations worry about the health consequences of crops genetically altered mainly for the purpose of helping a corporation (Monsanto) sell more herbicide (Roundup) while selling more seeds. Research on the health consequences of GM foods is mixed. According to reports in the SDFP and other blogs, all research on GM foods done in the U.S. in the last decade has been funded by DuPont or Monsanto and is not considered objective by many.
Research done in other countries, such as Holland, Germany and Russia, have found some GM related negative side effects for some people. Swelling of the cells, fluid retention and associated weight gain appears to be the most common reaction. Most of the importers of U.S. wheat disallow GM varieties. According to the KPBS report Friday afternoon, upon hearing the news of the renegade wheat found in Oregon, Korea, Japan, China and the EU have either suspended imports or implemented testing of wheat shipment coming from the U.S. Will the USDA be able to placate these nation’s concerns as they have America’s?
In the last month Monsanto has won a court case securing royalties from growers if they grow a Monsanto strain, intentionally or not. As Monsanto designed genes make their way through the global food supply, the question I want to ask is do I have the right to not eat a Monsanto strain? Do I have a right to not do business with Monsanto?
Under the current policies it looks like we’ll all be eating Monsanto sometime soon.