A strain of genetically modified wheat developed by Monsanto was discovered in an Oregon field late last month, and has generated fear over food supplies across Asia, with Japan and South Korea cancelling any purchase U.S. grain until further notice.
China and the Philippines said they were closely monitoring the situation. Asian consumers are opposed to gene-altered food, with few countries allowing imports for human consumption.
“We will refrain from buying western white and feed wheat,” Toru Hisadome, a Japanese farm ministry official in charge of wheat trading, told Reuters.
Last year, South Korea sourced half of its total wheat imports of 5 million tonnes from the U.S., but raised quarantine measures on U.S. wheat bought to feed livestock, while Thailand put ports on alert.
The GMO wheat was developed by Monsanto more than a decade ago but allegedly never put into commercial production. Field tests on GMO wheat were last conducted in 2005.
To establish the origin of the wheat, USDA extracted DNA from the tissue of wheat plants collected by its investigators from the Oregon field.
What particularly concerns Asians is that this rouge wheat strain was the first discovery of an unapproved strain, coupled with no information on how the rogue grain escape from a field trial a decade ago.
According to an Oregon State University wheat researcher who tested the strain, it was found in a field growing a different type of wheat than Monsanto’s strain, far from areas used for field tests.
“The discovery threatens to stoke consumer outcry over the possible risk of cross-contaminating natural products with genetically altered foods, and may embolden critics who say U.S. regulation of GMO products is lax.”
South Korean officials said the U.S. had provided the DNA sequence of the rogue GMO strain to help its inspectors detect if it was in other imported U.S. wheat and flour. The South Korean food ministry said test results will be released today.
“From this weekend, we will also collect wheat and flour imported from all over the United States and will conduct tests next week,” said Ahn Man-ho, a spokesman at the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.
Wheat is the world’s largest traded food commodity, and is used in making a wide variety of foods, including breads, pastries, cookies, cereal and pasta.
Monsanto entered four strains of GMO wheat for U.S. approval in the 1990s but the company abandoned the project because of no consumer demand for GMO wheat.
Reuters noted Monsanto downplayed the incident in a statement posted on its website. “While USDA’s results are unexpected, there is considerable reason to believe that the presence of the Roundup Ready trait in wheat, if determined to be valid, is very limited,” it said.
Monsanto Gives Up Fight for GM Plants in Europe
A German media report said Monsanto has given up on attempts to spread its GMO plant varieties in Europe, and would end all lobbying for approval of GMO crops.
The German newspaper “taz” reported that Monsanto had dropped any plans to have farmers grow its genetically modified (GM) plant varieties in Europe.
Monsanto Europe spokesman Brandon Mitchener said the company would no longer engage in any lobbying on the continent, adding that the firm was unwilling to apply for approval of any GM plants.
Monsanto said its decision was partly based on low demand from European farmers.
“We’ve understood that such plants don’t have any broad acceptance in European societies,” Monsanto Germany spokeswoman Ursula Lüttmer-Ouazane commented.
“We haven’t been able to make any progress over the years, and it’s counter-productive to tilt against windmills,” she added.