Genetically modified wheat that was never approved for sale has inexplicably turned up in a field in Oregon. A farmer found the crop when it survived a dousing of Roundup weedkiller. When he took it to a lab to be tested, the wheat was revealed to be an illegal strain, genetically modified to resist pesticides by Monsanto, the biotech corporation that owns the patents to most of the staple crops in the country.
Monsanto tested the genetically modified (GM) wheat in 16 states from 1998 to 2005, but dropped the project because many countries refused to accept genetically altered strains. It is unclear if any of the wheat made it into grain shipments to other countries. Though there is no compelling evidence that GM wheat is dangerous, any contamination could mean American wheat exports will be rejected.
Monsanto was quick to emphasize that GM wheat is harmless and that the scope of the problem was “very limited.” But the seemingly innocuous patch of wheat could blow up into a much larger headache for the company soon.
While it is too early to determine the guilty parties, USDA investigators are looking into possible violations of the Plant Protection Act, which regulates GM crops as “plant pests.” If Monsanto is found liable for the Oregon wheat, the company could face up to $1 million in civil penalties and even criminal prosecution.
Because the wheat was growing randomly, like a weed, it seems likely that this was a case of accidental contamination, rather than a deliberate planting of the illegal crop. In the past, the USDA has shown little sympathy for farmers whose crops have been inadvertently contaminated by Monsanto. Last year, the agency dismissed complaints by conventional and organic farmers that GM seeds intermingle with their own strains, simply advising they buy insurance to recoup their financial losses. The USDA report refused to even acknowledge that these farmers are still exposed to costly lawsuits from the biotech giant, even if the patent infringement was accidental. The Oregon wheat investigation may prove once and for all that tougher regulation and actual penalties are needed to curb GM contamination.
Monsanto’s approved crops have already driven non-GM seeds near extinction — one study found that at least half of the organic seeds left in the U.S. are contaminated with genetically modified material. Wheat is one of the shrinking number of staple crops that has thus far been insulated from Monsanto’s influence.
GM wheat contamination could also have serious environmental consequences for other wheat farmers. The USDA has ignored multiple warnings from scientists, academics, and even the EPA that Monsanto’s crops are breeding “superweeds” and “superinsects” that require much heavier doses of chemical pesticides.
Given its lenience in the past, the USDA is likely investigating this particular contamination because the crop is currently illegal and violates trade agreements with other countries. Recently, however, Monsanto has pushed to legalize GM wheat, saying it’s “the right time.” Simultaneously, Monsanto and the U.S. government are trying to compel foreign governments to accept GM products. If the company gets its way yet again, it may not be long before GM wheat dominates fields all over the world.