GM wheat: a chance to tell ag’s story

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The Memorial Day weekend saw organized protests in 436 cities in 52 countries for a “March Against Monsanto,” an event designed to sway public opinion against the giant seed maker in hopes of ending the use of genetically modified (GM) crops.  Just days after the “March Against Monsanto” event, the anti-GM movement was handed a public relations windfall when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced that a genetically modified, glyphosate-resistant wheat variety was found this spring in volunteer wheat growing on a farm in Oregon. “Roundup Ready” crops have been genetically modified to include a gene that works to make that crop resistant to the broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate, also known by its branded name, Roundup.

Those wheat sprouts were big news because the USDA never approved GM wheat, and many of America’s trading partners are opposed to GM crops. Grain traders immediately warned that the discovery could hurt export prospects for U.S. wheat. Indeed, half of U.S.-grown wheat is exported, and major buyers include Japan, Mexico, Europe, South Korea, Egypt, Nigeria and the Philippines. “We will refrain from buying western white and feed wheat effective today,” Toru Hisadome, a Japanese farm ministry official in charge of wheat trading, said when the news broke. The discovery of the GM wheat was made by an Oregon farmer who took to the field this spring to kill volunteer wheat sprouts by spraying them with glyphosate, and some of the sprouts unexpectedly survived. Scientists found the wheat was a strain field-tested from 1998 to 2005 and deemed safe before Monsanto withdrew it from the regulatory approval process. Today, no GM wheat varieties are approved for general planting in the United States or elsewhere.

Since late May, USDA has continued its investigation to determine the origin of the GM wheat sprouts. As of this writing, they have found no other GM wheat, which is a relief to everyone involved but only deepens the mystery behind the event. Despite wide-spread scientific assurances about the safety of GM crops (including the Food and Drug Administration’s confirmation of the food and feed safety of Roundup Ready wheat), anti-GM activists claim there must be something sinister about the discovery of the GM wheat sprouts.

In fact, many are assuming negligence on Monsanto’s part, which is why lawsuits were popping up like weeds last month from some farmers seeking damages from the company.

The lawsuits, of course, are premature since officials have not assigned blame or negligence to anyone. For their part, Monsanto officials say they are cooperating fully with investigators, and they believe the GM wheat sprouts were likely the result of an accident or deliberate mixing of seeds. They have said they are not ruling out sabotage.

The sad part of this unfortunate incident is that it has cost those involved millions of dollars and hundreds of man hours. It has further sullied Monsanto’s brand and provided more fodder for activists fighting to keep agriculture from using technology.

The good news is that the event provides another opportunity to tell our story. GM wheat and other crops have been deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies around the world. Yet, there is a growing movement against GM technology. We can only fight such protests with complete transparency.

This issue is not just about GMOs and Monsanto. It’s about all of the technologies American agriculture uses to produce safe and wholesome food. One group working to provide accurate information about farming to consumers is the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA). USFRA consists of more than 80 farmer- and rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners representing virtually all aspects of agriculture, working to engage in dialogue with consumers who have questions about how today’s food is grown and raised. USFRA is committed to continuous improvement and supporting U.S. farmers’ and ranchers’ efforts to increase confidence and trust in today’s agriculture.


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