Containing rogue wheat
by BRETT MARINO
Let’s begin with a very brief overview of wheat itself.
Domesticated wheat is a cereal grain that is believed to have originated from somewhere in the Fertile Crescent region of the Near East (modern day Turkey, Israel, and Iraq) around 9,000 B.C. This grain gained primary importance for early farmers for two reasons: its ability to be cultivated on a large scale, and its ability for long-term storage. These life-sustaining qualities acted as the cornerstone for our city-based societies; in other words, with this crop’s emergence came the emergence of civilization itself.
Fast-forward to today and wheat still holds an honorable seat in the agricultural world. In 2010, wheat world production estimates were at 651 million tons, only being out-produced by corn at 844 million tons and rice at 672 million tons. In the United States, farmers harvested approximately 60 million tons in 2010. We have long prided ourselves as a breadbasket for the world and (gluten-free trends aside) that boast didn’t seem to be losing the world’s attention anytime soon. Not until this past summer.
Last May, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) announced that a strain of genetically modified wheat had been discovered in an Oregon farmer’s field. As reported by APHIS, a farmer, who was allowing one of his fields to lie fallow, noticed some “volunteers” of soft white wheat. After an application of Roundup failed to kill this unwanted wheat, he figured something with the strain was unusual. He took a sample and sent it to a laboratory at Oregon State University which determined that it was a Roundup-ready product.
As reported by Bloomberg’s Business Week correspondent Bill Donahue:
“The USDA later confirmed that it was MON 71800, a strain of wheat created by Monsanto, the $14 billion agricultural giant, based in St. Louis, Missouri. From 1998 to 2005, the company had been authorized to field-test in 16 states, including Oregon. Monsanto had engineered 71800 to be resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, which it also manufactures. It had conceived the seed as a companion product to the herbicide. But it discontinued 71800, the company says, to focus on corn, cotton, and oilseeds.”
Because of foreign bans and labeling restrictions, some concerns arose about the effects this rogue wheat will play on global markets, especially in trade with Asia. In its May 29 press release, “the USDA revealed that the top buyer of American wheat, Japan, had suspended import tenders for western white wheat. South Korea planned to test all U.S. wheat and wheat flour upon arrival (Bloomberg).”
The contamination of the Oregon wheat field somewhat justifies crop bans on genetically modified organisms (GMO), particularly in the European Union. These temporary bans state that the EU needs further testing on each product before it is released to open air fields where it’s difficult to contain the spreading and cross-pollinating of seeds.
Oregon wheat farmer and retired county commissioner, Lou Wettstein, verifies this EU concern by highlighting a GMO variety of bentgrass that escaped from an Idaho test plot for Scott’s Miracle Grow and has been growing unwanted in the area:
“They get into the irrigation pipes…get lodged in the wind and cross with other grasses, and pretty soon their everywhere. It’s a real pain in the neck and a heck of a mess.”
But unlike many new-aged, city-dwelling liberals, Wettstein doesn’t speak poorly about the company responsible for the rogue wheat. For him and his neighbors, Monsanto is a life-giving force of good that has fed his community as well as the world.
So, the discussion of the rogue wheat will continue, but will call down since the contamination is thought to be minimal.
For the time being, farmers can expect “a drop of 10 cents to 15 cents a bushel for a little while as exporters start testing wheat for its genetic traits. The supply chain’s going to slow down a bit,” according to Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University.
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