Altered wheat discovery is merely a mystery

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The discovery of a patch of genetically altered wheat in Eastern Oregon might be cause for some concern, but there is no reason to panic.

Yet, from the tone of some news accounts and Internet posts one would think the Chicken Little Society is on high alert. The sky is falling and the U.S. wheat market is in trouble.

“ ... When modified wheat was discovered recently on a small farm in Oregon, the response from U.S. trading partners was fierce. Japan, the number one buyer of U.S. wheat, suspended some imports, as did South Korea,” CBS News reported.

Fierce? Hardly. Japan temporarily stopped buyingwhite winter wheat purchases.

“It’s on a pretty small location and we don’t even know how widespread, so this tender was just, I think, the Japanese saying ‘we need to be cautious about this,’” said Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. “It doesn’t mean they won’t come back and buy soft white in the future.”

Exactly. First, the incident has to be fully investigated to find out exactly why the genetically modified wheat was there.

The modified wheat was a surprise to those overseeing the wheat farm in question.

The Associated Press reported last week the modified wheat was discovered when several acres of wheat were sprayed with Roundup herbicide to kill it as the ground was scheduled to be fallow.

But a patch of wheat (later determined to be less than 1 percent of the field) didn’t die even after several applications. Samples of the wheat were tested at Oregon State University, where it was found to be genetically modified. It appears to be a strain developed by Monsanto, makers of Roundup, to be resistant to its own chemical.

Monsanto has not conducted field tests since 2005, which makes this even more puzzling. Further investigation will be needed to determine how the wheat seed was planted there.

In a seven-year period between 1998 and 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture authorized more than 100 field tests with the same chemical resistant wheat variety. Tests were conducted in 16 states including Oregon and Washington. The Food and Drug Administration reviewed the variety tested in Oregon and determined it was as safe as conventional wheat.

That, of course, is no guarantee the crop is safe. However, it’s a strong indicator it isn’t a deadly poison either. There’s no need to panic.

Japan and many countries around the world will not accept imports of genetically modified foods, so it is important to keep the Pacific Northwest crop untainted from modified wheat.

That can be done by pinpointing the specific problem.

It’s possible a reasonable explanation can be found for the genetically modified wheat. Let’s sort out the facts from the hyperbole before any measures, dramatic or otherwise, are taken unnecessarily.

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