Abigail Seiler, Center for Food Safety, 443-854-4368, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kevin Dowling, Western Organization of Resource Councils, 406-252-9672, email@example.com
Kristina Hubbard, Organic Seed Alliance, 406-544-8946, firstname.lastname@example.org
One Year After GE Wheat Contamination, USDA has Failed to Protect Farmers
Wheat farmers and advocates demand immediate action from USDA
May 29, 2014—On the one-year anniversary of the Department of Agriculture’s announcement of finding an unapproved, genetically engineered (GE) wheat in an Oregon field, farmers and allies are demanding an end to the approval of GE traits until measures are adopted to protect non GE-farmers and their markets from contamination by GE crops. A 2013 FOIA request uncovered up to 483 total field trial violations, demonstrating the serious potential for future contamination episodes.
“We’re still waiting for answers,” says Clint Lindsey, an Oregon wheat grower whose shipments were put on hold last year after the unapproved wheat was found. “Crop genes move in the environment and cannot be fully contained, yet USDA continues to approve experimental wheat trials. We deserve assurances that our markets won’t be halted again and put at risk.”
Todd Leake, a North Dakota wheat grower and Dakota Resource Council member who farms more than 2,000 acres is concerned about ongoing experimental field trials in his state. “GE wheat field trials are underway in North Dakota, potentially covering more than 260 acres. Our export markets have zero tolerance for GE traits in wheat products – it’s not a marketable commodity. If another contamination event surfaces, the consequences would be devastating. USDA must do its part to ensure that we don’t lose our export markets to other countries.”
After a decade of field trials, Monsanto dropped efforts to introduce GE wheat in 2004 in the face of intense opposition from consumers, farmers, wheat millers and food companies. However, after a six-year hiatus, Monsanto resumed extensive field-testing of GE wheat in 2011.
“USDA has continuously failed to protect the food supply from GE crop contamination,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for Center for Food Safety. “Our farmers and food supply are severely jeopardized by such contamination episodes, yet the biotech industry responsible faces no accountability and operates with little transparency. Swift action from USDA is desperately needed.”
USDA records reveal that Monsanto has conducted 279 field tests of herbicide-resistant wheat on over 4,000 acres in 17 states since 1994. Records also reveal that 22 new GE wheat field trials have been approved since the department’s announcement one year ago. These trials represent more than 960 acres spanning ten states. USDA is allowing Monsanto to conduct six of these trials, despite remaining questions as to how the company’s product contaminated Oregon wheat last year.
“Contamination events happen far too frequently,” says Kristina Hubbard of Organic Seed Alliance. She points to contaminated alfalfa identified in Washington State four months after the Oregon wheat contamination event. Soon after, China rejected a U.S. corn shipment containing a GE trait not approved for import. “Farmers, seed companies, and food processors are bearing the burden of contamination. Stronger regulations and oversight are long overdue to protect the integrity of seed – changes that must begin at the experimental field trial stage.”
Opponents of GE wheat have long argued that it would contaminate conventional wheat, making it unsellable to many markets that reject GE products. A 2005 study estimated that the wheat industry could lose $94 to $272 million if GE wheat was introduced.
More than 150 farm organizations, food processors, millers, retail companies, bakeries, and seed businesses signed a letter last year calling for improvements in USDA’s oversight of experimental trials of GE crops, including:
- USDA should halt all new approvals of GE wheat field trials and terminate existing trials.
- USDA should publish a final report before wheat harvests begin detailing the department’s investigation into the Oregon wheat event, including sampling and testing methodologies.
- Before approving field trials, USDA must have the appropriate tools in hand to test for unapproved GE traits in cases of suspected and confirmed contamination events.
- USDA should mandate containment protocols for all GE crop field trials.
- USDA should fully implement the remaining recommendations made by investigative bodies and Congress that aim to improve field trial oversight.