USDA opens investigation into second case of unauthorised genetically engineered wheat
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has opened a new investigation after a second case where unauthorised genetically engineered wheat was found growing.
The unauthorised and unregulated genetically engineered wheat was found growing at a research facility that was the previous site of authorised field trials in Montana. The wheat found in Montana is the second case where the unauthorised crop has been found growing. In 2013, unauthorised genetically engineered wheat was found growing at a farm in Oregon.
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) said genetically engineered wheat was field-tested under APHIS’ regulatory approval at the Montana State University’s Southern Agricultural Research Center (SARC) in Huntley, Montana, between 2000 and 2003. Genetic testing showed that the genetically engineered wheat at this research facility location is significantly different from the genetically engineered wheat found growing at a farm in Oregon last year.
The new investigation comes as the investigation into the genetically engineered wheat found in Oregon closes. The APHIS concluded that the presence of the genetically engineered wheat on the farm in Oregon appeared to be an isolated incident. The wheat found on the Oregon farm was developed by Monsanto to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, also known as Roundup. The APHIS found that there was no evidence of the genetically engineered wheat in commerce.
The APHIS has not deregulated any genetically wheat varieties to date, and thus, there are no GE wheat varieties for sale or in commercial production in the US. The agency said the genetic trait detected in the wheat in these two instances did not present a food safety issue because the US Food and Drug Administration completed a food safety consultation for this genetically engineered wheat in 2004 and expressed no food safety concerns.
On July 14, 2014, the APHIS was notified that suspected genetically engineered wheat had been discovered growing at the Montana State University’s Southern Agricultural Research Center (SARC) in Huntley, Montana, where Monsanto and researchers grew genetically engineered wheat as part of field trials between 2000 and 2003. These field tests were conducted under APHIS’ regulatory approval.
The APHIS immediately began an investigation into this regulatory compliance issue and sampled wheat at the SARC. Testing of the samples by a USDA laboratory confirmed that the wheat was genetically engineered to resist Roundup. Further genetic testing shows that the genetically engineered wheat collected from the field in Montana was not the source of the genetically engineered wheat found growing in the single field in Oregon.
The APHIS said that, among other things, its ongoing investigation is focusing on why genetically engineered wheat was found growing at the research facility location. Genetically engineered wheat from the facility has not been allowed to enter commercial channels this year and genetically engineered wheat grown as part of authorised field trials at this research facility between 2000 and 2003 was likewise not allowed to enter commercial channels. None of the wheat is sold as seed. The APHIS said it would provide more information when it concludes its investigation.
The APHIS began its comprehensive investigation into the detection of genetically engineered wheat on the Oregon farm on May 3, 2013. During the following 10 months, the APHIS conducted 291 interviews with wheat growers, grain elevator operators, crop consultants, and wheat researchers, and collected and carefully reviewed thousands of pages of evidence. Additionally, APHIS collected more than 100 samples from businesses that sold and purchased the same certified seed planted in the field in Oregon, as well as from businesses that purchased the harvested grain from the grower.
The APHIS said that after exhausting all leads, it was unable to determine exactly how the GE wheat came to grow in the farmer’s field.
The investigation also found that the genetically engineered wheat is not a commercial variety of wheat. Instead, the genetic characteristics of the genetically engineered wheat volunteers were representative of a wheat breeding program.
As it continues its investigation in Montana, APHIS is also taking several additional steps to ensure that unintended genetically engineered wheat is not growing in other locations in the United States where field trials are taking place or have recently occurred.
The APHIS will inspect field trials planted in 2014, and follow-up with post-harvest inspections to ensure those conducting the field trials adhere to APHIS’ requirements to monitor for, and remove, volunteer plants (plants that grow in a field following a previous harvest). It will also conduct some post-harvest volunteer monitoring inspections of genetically engineered wheat field trials that were planted in 2012 and 2013.
Beyond this, APHIS is assessing other measures – such as the requirements it puts in place for field tests involving genetically engineered wheat, as well as the frequency of its inspections of field test sites – to minimise the potential for any further incidents involving genetically engineered wheat.
Genetically engineered wheat in Australia
Meanwhile, in Australia, genetically engineered wheat is also only at trial stage.
Australian Food News reported in August 2013 that the Australian Government’s gene technology regulator had called for comments on an application by the Victorian Department of Primary Industries for a limited and controlled release of up to 40 lines of wheat that had been genetically modified for increased yield stability.
The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) said the primary purpose of the field trial was to “evaluate the agronomic performance of the GM wheat under field conditions”. The trial was proposed to take place over two growing seasons between November 2013 and December 2015. The GM wheat would be grown near Horsham in Victoria, on a maximum area of 2 hectares per season. The GM wheat would not be permitted in human food or animal feed.