Another variety of unapproved, genetically engineered (GE) wheat has been discovered, this time in Montana, underscoring once again the remarkably weak regulations governing experimental plantings of GE crops.
The USDA announced the discovery on Friday, the news buried in a press release about the closing of its investigation into how GE wheat ended up in an Oregon farmer’s field last year. GE wheat remains a regulated seed product, meaning it cannot be commercially grown in the U.S. Organic Seed Alliance responded by outlining these weaknesses and providing recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture in a letter signed by more than 150 farm organizations and food and seed businesses.
In the end, USDA says it’s unable to determine how the unapproved wheat got into the Oregon field. Monsanto continues to plant GE wheat field trials, and says GE wheat is closer than ever to entering the marketplace. Yet domestic and overseas markets still reject GE wheat, as evidenced by the market disruption caused by the Oregon event last year, leading to a handful of lawsuits against Monsanto (some of which were recently settled). A 2005 report estimates that the wheat industry could lose $94 to $272 million if GE wheat is introduced.
And now another investigation is underway in Montana. This past July, GE wheat was found at a Montana State University research station where it had been grown between 2000 and 2003. Like the Oregon event, the wheat was discovered years after trials ended and only after some plants unexpectedly survived the spraying of glyphosate. The two events appear unrelated, however.
USDA responded to the new contamination event by saying it plans to inspect GE wheat field trials planted in 2014 to monitor for, and remove, volunteers — plants that pop up from previous harvests. The department says it will also monitor “some” of the 2012 and 2013 GE wheat trial locations for volunteer plants. But the Oregon wheat was discovered eight years after trials ended in that state. Not only have there been hundreds of GE wheat trials since 1998, USDA allowed more than 20 new GE wheat field trials representing approximately 960 acres spanning ten states since the Oregon discovery. USDA allowed Monsanto to conduct six of these trials, despite remaining questions as to how the company’s product contaminated Oregon wheat last year.
In both cases, Monsanto’s GE trait was identified through accidental discovery, not a robust regulatory and monitoring system.
Indeed, by our estimation, only 11% of GE wheat trials have been inspected in the last 13 years, so increased monitoring of field trials is a welcomed announcement. In fact, for years major investigative bodies have called for more inspections, among other improvements in oversight, but these recommendations have not been fully implemented. USDA’s recent announcement provides no assurances that changes are underway to prevent these events in the first place.
Scientists are calling on USDA to improve its oversight. In a recent media piece, Carol Mallory-Smith, a professor of weed science at Oregon State University, said USDA should monitor field trials of GE crops more carefully, rightly pointing out that plant genes are likely to persist in the environment once they’re planted in open fields (and that they can’t be retracted). The lack of oversight has also recently been documented by journalists who have highlighted USDA’s industry-friendly approach and the department’s inability to accurately track field trial non-compliances (many of the penalties the companies received remain unknown).
Given the severe shortcomings of the current system, USDA should halt all new field trials of GE crops. USDA has long been operating under outdated regulations, and acknowledged as much when it began the process of updating its regulations in 2004, leading to proposed regulations in 2008. However, since closing the comment period, USDA has not taken further action.
Meanwhile, we have more evidence than ever that GE crops lead to costly market rejection, at times due to contamination, and create worse weed epidemics, leading to dramatic increases in the application of toxic herbicides.
Updated regulations should strengthen the agency’s oversight of GE crops given the shortcomings evidenced by regular contamination events, as well as other environmental impacts and remaining questions about performance and safety. The agency should use its current authority to mandate contamination prevention practices on the part of users and owners of GE products. And all of this should begin at the field trial stage.