A representative of the Japanese Embassy in Washington says the country will cancel all extant orders of U.S.-grown wheat and suspend select imports after yesterday’s USDA announcement that a mysterious patch of GMO wheat had been found growing among conventional crops in Oregon. The Associated Press first reported that workers clearing fields at a unnamed wheat farm in Eastern Oregon had discovered plants that would not die, so they blasted the stalks with extra doses of Roundup Ready and … nothing. Subsequent lab reports revealed that the wheat was identical to a genetically modified strain developed and tested by Monsanto between 1998 and 2005 in sixteen states. Those tests were carried out on “private facilities,” however, and were reportedly discontinued almost a decade ago, and most saliently, that strain was never approved for sale. Now the USDA says they haven’t received any other reports of GMO plants from other farms, and meanwhile, the FDA says the herbicide-resistant kind is safe. None of this is really the problem, though.
“Hopefully our trading partners will be understanding that this is not a food or feed safety issue,” Acting Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Michael T. Scuse tells the AP, and he’s right. This is not clearly a food-safety issue, but the discovery does has big and weird implications for food security, the power of food policy, and big agribusiness all at the same time.
There’s no indication of how the Monsanto wheat got to the Oregon field in the first place, but the real problem is that no transgenic wheat is allowed to be grown in the United States. So while it falls to the Agriculture Department to assure the Japanese government that all American-grown wheat is safe, the incident is a reminder of our limits with transgenic plants. After all, it may be great that several states and corporations are now pushing for greater transparency and increased labeling of genetically modified foods, but if farmers are ineluctably hosting and growing GMO strains that should only exist in some secluded research laboratory, what’s the point?