Four months after the discovery of genetically engineered wheat sent a
shudder through one of Oregon's most significant international markets, federal
investigators appear no closer to solving the mystery of how the "Roundup Ready"
plants appeared in a solitary eastern Oregon field.
Meanwhile, records released by the Oregon Department of Agriculture show the discovery sent officials scrambling to obtain information, reassure legislators, monitor media reports and decipher overseas market reaction.
The finding threatened sales of Oregon wheat to Asian nations that mill it to make cakes, crackers or noodles, or use it for animal feed. Japan and Korea, the biggest markets, get one-third of their wheat from Oregon and together accounted for $700 million in sales in 2012, according to agriculture department documents.
The biggest markets are strongly opposed to buying genetically modified food, and Japan and Korea suspended wheat purchases this spring and summer as the federal Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service investigated the rogue plants.
"I've been reaching out to old trading colleagues locally, in Japan and elsewhere, but many of them are reluctant to respond or say too much given sensitivities of the situation," the department's global trade and compliance manager, Patrick Mayer, wrote in an email to Director Katy Coba.
Hundreds of pages of emails, released in response to a public records request by The Oregonian, show officials held their collective breath as the situation unfolded and other countries considered options.
"It so far has not generated much interest in Philippines, but if other countries in the region start imposing bans and there is a press frenzy, etc., that could change," wrote Philip Shull, an agriculture counselor at the U.S. embassy in Manila, in a May 30 email to Mayer.
Apparently satisfied by test results provided by U.S. officials, Japan and Korea announced in July they would resume purchases of Northwest wheat, which flows overseas through a network of grain elevators and ports along the Columbia River.
Investigators with APHIS have found no more genetically modified plants, seed or grain. The agency interviewed 270 Pacific Northwest growers but has yet not been able to say how the plants came to be in the 125-acre field of an unidentified farmer. The plants were a variety developed by Monsanto Co. to resist its Roundup herbicide, but never approved for commercial production.
The investigation began in late April when the farmer noticed that plants he'd sprayed with an herbicide did not die as expected. Tests by Oregon State University and federal scientists showed the plants carried a gene that allowed them to resist glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.
How the plants got there remains a mystery.
"There's really not a hypothesis that has a lot of buy-in," said Blake Rowe, chief executive of the Oregon Wheat Commission. "People are genuinely stumped. We're beginning to mentally prepare ourselves that APHIS won't be able to say how it happened, and we just do the best we can to address it."
Rowe said he's urged growers to be "extra vigilant" as they observe their fields after harvest this year. If more genetically modified plants appear, wheat buyers might require expensive testing protocols. Export markets could close and Oregon wheat growers could get elbowed aside by competitors in Australia or Russia. If that happens, farmers' options are limited. In some parts of eastern Oregon, a lack of irrigation water makes wheat the only crop that reliably produces income.
Rowe said it's better to deal with problems while they're small.
"If anything looks remotely unusual, let's get after it," he said.
(c)2013 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
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