Bioengineered wheat found in Washington state

by Eric Schroeder
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MON 71700 Monsanto genetically engineered wheat
The bioengineered wheat is being referred to as MON 71700, containing the CP4-EPSPS protein.

WASHINGTON — The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) on July 29 confirmed the discovery of 22 genetically engineered (G.E.) wheat plants growing in an unplanted agricultural field in Washington state. The bioengineered wheat found on the Washington farm was developed by Monsanto to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, also known as Roundup.

APHIS said it has taken “prompt and thorough action” in response to the discovery and has found “no evidence” of bioengineered wheat in commerce.

The bioengineered wheat is being referred to as MON 71700, containing the CP4-EPSPS protein. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) previously evaluated crops containing the CP4-EPSPS protein for safety through its voluntary biotechnology consultation process.

“Due to the small number of affected plants, and based on the available information about MON 71700 and CP4-EPSPS, F.D.A. concluded it is unlikely that the wheat would present any safety concerns if present in the food supply as a result of this incident,” APHIS said.

APHIS said it has worked with the farmer to ensure that no bioengineered wheat moves into commerce.

“Out of an abundance of caution, APHIS is testing the farmer’s full wheat harvest for the presence of any G.E. material,” APHIS said. “The farmer’s harvest is complete, and it continues to be held while U.S.D.A. completes tests of the grain. So far all samples continue to be negative for any G.E. material. If any wheat tests positive for G.E. material, the farmer’s crop will not be allowed in commerce.”

St. Louis-based Monsanto has developed a test that will identify MON 71700 in commercial grain shipments, and the U.S.D.A. has validated the test and its sensitivity level so that trading partners may use the test for wheat imports, if they choose.

There are no bioengineered wheat varieties for sale or in commercial production in the United States at this time, as APHIS has not deregulated any bioengineered wheat varieties.

The U.S.D.A. in recent years has taken steps to strengthen its oversight of regulated G.E. field trials, and APHIS now requires developers to apply for a permit for field trials involving bioengineered wheat beginning with G.E. wheat planted on or after Jan. 1, 2016.

“The decision to require the more stringent permit process rather than the notification process employed in the past, provides added protection that G.E. wheat will remain confined during field trials,” APHIS said.

The finding marks the third such incident involving bioengineered wheat since mid-2013, when bioengineered wheat was discovered on a farm in Oregon. Following that finding, some countries in Asia temporarily suspended U.S. wheat imports. Then, in 2014, bioengineered wheat was found near a Montana State University crop research facility. Both varieties were found to have been developed by Monsanto.

US Wheat Associates, the National Association of Wheat Growers and the Washington Grain Commission issued a joint statement on July 29 saying they are aware of the latest finding.

“The agency (APHIS) has kept our organizations, as well as government officials in several key overseas markets, informed as it worked to find the facts,” the groups said. “In turn, our organizations have shared information about the situation with the domestic grain trade and downstream customer organizations, as well as overseas grain trade and buyers in several countries that import U.S. wheat. U.S.W. believes that some of those customers will be temporarily cautious about new imports of some U.S. wheat until they can put the validated grain test to work locally. U.S.D.A. says that could happen as soon as next week. Since there is no evidence of G.E. wheat in commercial supplies, we expect the testing to confirm that, so if any market disruption occurs, we think it will be short-lived.”

In addition to the groups giving a vote of confidence in the way APHIS has managed the situation, the Korean Ministry of Agriculture, Farms and Rural Affairs issued a public statement saying there is no concern from Korean officials that bioengineered wheat will be introduced into Korea.

Grain import officials in Japan and Korea have tested for the bioengineered wheat identified in 2013 in virtually every load of U.S. wheat delivered to those countries since August 2013 and have had no incidences. In addition, researchers at Washington State University have been conducting routine phenotype screening for glyphosate tolerance in wheat since 2013.

“In each of the last three growing seasons, this field screening process has involved more than 80 varieties, 2,000 advanced breeding lines and more than 35,000 individual plots,” U.S. Wheat and NAWG said. “Varieties included in these trials represent more than 95% of the wheat acreage planted in the state of Washington and much of the acreage planted in Oregon and Idaho. Screening to date has revealed no glyphosate tolerant wheat plants in these trials.

“The federal systems in place ensure that unauthorized biotech products are tightly regulated and do not enter commercial channels. In fact, APHIS recently changed its rules to require developers to apply for a permit for field trials involving G.E. wheat. APHIS said this more stringent process will add protection that G.E. wheat will remain confined during the trials.

“Nothing is more important to the U.S. wheat industry than the trust we have earned with customers at home and around the world by providing a reliable supply of high-quality wheat. We thank our customers for their reasonable approach to this situation and we are confident that public and private breeders and federal regulators are taking all appropriate actions to ensure that U.S. wheat, wheat flour and wheat foods remain safe, wholesome and nutritious for people, and in animal feed, around the world.”
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