Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) issued a news release (PDF) announcing that a genetically engineered (GE) variety of wheat was found growing on an Oregon farm. APHIS was first notified of the issue by an Oregon State University (OSU) scientist who reported that initial tests of wheat samples from an Oregon farm indicated the possible presence of GE glyphosate-resistant wheat plants.
Here’s what you need to know:
Earlier in April 2013, an Oregon farmer noticed wheat plants that had germinated and developed in a place where they had not been intentionally planted, so-called “volunteer” plants. The farmer also found that these wheat plants were resistant to glyphosate, a systemic herbicide used to kill weeds known to compete with commercial crops. The farmer then sent the samples to OSU for analysis, which later tested positive for the glyphosate trait.
The OSU scientist contacted APHIS on May 3, 2013 to inform the agency of her findings. After immediately launching an investigation and conducting further sampling and testing, APHIS officials announced that the samples taken showed the presence of the same GE glyphosate-resistant wheat variety that Monsanto was authorized to field test in 16 states from 1998 to 2005. Specifically, over this seven year period, APHIS authorized over 100 field tests with this specific glyphosate-resistant wheat variety in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming.
This news has come as a surprise to many since there are no GE wheat varieties for sale or in commercial production in the U.S. The reason being that, unlike some other commercial crops such as GE sugar beets and corn that have been deregulated by APHIS, there are currently no GE wheat varieties that have obtained deregulated status from APHIS. In addition, to date, GE wheat varieties are not authorized for commercial sale or planting in any country.
However, despite the fact that GE wheat is not approved for planting in the U.S., government officials have confirmed that detection of this wheat variety does not pose a food safety concern. According to an investigation report (PDF) issued by APHIS in connection with the GE glyphosate-resistant wheat found in Oregon, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) completed a voluntary consultation on the safety of food and feed derived from this GE glyphosate-resistant wheat variety in 2004. FDA ultimately determined that the GE glyphosate-resistant wheat variety is as safe as non-GE wheat currently on the market. FDA’s consultation summary, which includes the developer’s conclusion that “this wheat variety is not materially different in composition, safety, or any other relevant parameter from wheat now grown, marketed, and consumed,” can be found here.
Michael Firko, Acting Deputy Administrator for APHIS’ Biotechnology Regulatory Services, explained that the agency is taking the situation and the continuing investigation very seriously. APHIS is collaborating with state, industry, and trading partners to understand how the situation might have arisen and whether there are any more affected areas.
What is yet to be seen is how this event may influence Washington state voters come November. Initiative 522, also known as the “Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food Measure,” is an initiative to the legislature on the ballot in Washington that will be decided in the general election on November 5, 2013. Similar to California’s Proposition 37 that failed with voters last year, Initiative 522 would require GMO labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if the food is made from plants or animals produced through genetic engineering.
If Initiative 522 passes in November, this particular event would likely not trigger in liability for a producer or retailer’s failure to label the GE wheat. Initiative 522 specifically exempts from labeling any “raw agricultural commodity or food that has been grown, raised, produced, or derived without the knowing and intentional use of genetically engineered seed or food.” (emphasis added). However, there could be other legal ramifications if officials determine that the cause of the incident amounts to a violation of the Plant Protection Act (PPA). Under the PPA, if a violation is found, APHIS has the authority to seek penalties for such a violation including civil penalties up to $1,000,000 and potential criminal prosecution.