Montana’s $1.7 billion wheat industry is watching cautiously as foreign buyers react negatively to unauthorized genetically modified wheat discovered in Oregon.
The discovery, confirmed this week by the U.S. Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, prompted import restrictions by Japan on soft white U.S. wheat. Friday, South Korea halted U.S. wheat imports for further testing, while Taiwan announced it was putting U.S. wheat imports under review. The European Union encouraged its members to test certain shipments for wheat genetically modified to survive exposure to the herbicide Roundup, the trait engineered into the wheat discovered in Oregon.
Montanans are watching closely because 80 percent of the state’s wheat crop is exported overseas. Wheat sales in 2012 totaled a record $1.7 billion, according to the U.S. National Agriculture Statistics Service. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines are the state’s biggest grain customers.
However, soft white wheat is not the bread and butter of Montana trade. Farmers here export dark northern spring and hard red winter wheat varieties, as well as durum. Thursday, as the Japan Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries canceled its tender for 25,000 tons of white wheat, it did purchase hard red spring and winter wheat varieties.
“They’re buying our wheat right now,” said Kim Falcon, Montana Wheat and Barley Committee executive vice president. “The Japanese and the Koreans are always very concerned about the quality of what they purchase from the U.S. and around the world. So, for them to want to look further into this is pretty acceptable and normal.”
News reports following the APHIS announcement frequently stated that both Japan and South Korea banned U.S. imports. That’s not true, said Steve Mercer of U.S. Wheat Associates. One Washington newspaper reported Friday that Oregon’s Roundup Ready wheat find involved 80 acres. Also not true.
“What the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service said is they a found Roundup Ready strain of volunteer wheat that was growing in a fallow field on one farm in Oregon,” Mercer said. “So the number of plants was relatively small and the wheat that had the strain wasn’t going into the commercial supply, anyway.”
Grain that sprouts on its own, without a farmer’s intention, is known as volunteer. The fallow field, which didn’t have a crop, was 80 acres. According to APHIS, the farmer treating the field with Roundup in April noticed that some volunteer wheat had survived the spraying. The farmer sent samples of the wheat to Oregon State University, which tested the wheat for the Monsanto-developed Roundup Ready trait and received a positive result.
Oregon State University contacted APHIS, which launched a formal investigation May 3.
Between 1998 and 2005, APHIS authorized 100 field tests of Roundup Ready wheat in 17 states, including Montana and Wyoming, Idaho and the Dakotas.
That research ended eight years ago without authorization for commercial sale or planting, according to APHIS. However, the Food and Drug Administration did in 2004 provide a voluntary consultation to Monsanto stating that the Roundup Ready wheat was not “Materially different in composition, safety, or any other relevant parameter from what's now grown, marketed or consumed.”
APHIS is still investigating how the Roundup Ready wheat turned up on an Oregon farm.
Mercer said Japan already tests the wheat it buys for more than 150 trace chemical residues. The tests are done both before the wheat is loaded for shipment and when it arrives. If Japan and other buyers want to test for genetically modified traits, U.S. wheat exporters will do what’s necessary to assure confidence in their exports.
This isn’t the first U.S. farm product to come under trade scrutiny. In 2003, when a Washington State dairy discovered mad cow disease on a cow it purchased in Canada, beef exports to Japan and elsewhere were devastated. Formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the disease is fatal to cows and can cause a fatal human brain disease in people who eat tainted beef. Japan banned U.S. beef. It took eight years for U.S. beef exports to recover. Sales to Japan and South Korea stifled by age restrictions that persisted until only recently, still haven’t fully recovered.
However, the issues surrounding Oregon’s GMO wheat discovery and Washington State’s 2003 BSE case are different, said Vince Smith, a Montana State University economist who studies trade issues.
“This issue does raise serious issues with which the U.S. wheat industry will have to cope,” Smith said. “However, first because there’s no evidence of this grain being incorporated in shipments, and secondly because there’s absolutely no evidence that this GMO variety has any implications to human health, this makes this problem significantly different or substantially different than the problem of the beef industry with the BSE incident in 2003.”
One thing possibly working in Montana’s favor as quality assurances are made could be the recent increase in Montana grain elevators owned by Japanese companies. Japanese and South Korean development of high speed grain elevators across Montana has surged for three years. The element of Japanese control of the grain from the time it leaves the farm should be favorable, Smith said.