wheat AP
Farmers need the answer for how genetically modified wheat made it into their crops fast because until they find out, Japan won't buy any. (AP Photo/File)

Wheatroversy: Biggest market for NW wheat won't buy death-defying plant

It began with the plant that wouldn't die.

Wheat farming is a $1 billion industry in Washington state and now farmers across the Northwest are worried because of what happened in a wheat field in northeastern Oregon last month. A farmer sprayed his field with Roundup to clear it -- but not everything died.

And new wheat plants began sprouting.

That was weird because as you know, when you spray Roundup on a field, everything withers. Or it's supposed to.

So the farmer sent the undead wheat sample to Mike Flowers' department at Oregon State University, "To see if it, on the off chance, would be resistant to Roundup. That preliminary test came back positive. And there were several other tests that came back positive, just to confirm that and at that point we thought there was a problem."

The problem being that Monsanto (the St. Louis-based agricultural biotech giant and the world's biggest seed developer) created a batch of Roundup-resistant wheat - but abandoned the idea nine years ago and supposedly destroyed all of it. But here it was, showing up in a field nowhere near the plots where it had been tested.

"It's certainly not supposed to be growing out in a farmer's field," said Flowers.

The question, of course, how did it get there?

"It's not like this pollen is blowing in the air from some trial somewhere - another part of the United States. That's not very likely. It's a true mystery. We have to figure out how it got there," said Flowers.

Farmers need the answer fast because until they find out, Japan, the biggest market for Northwest wheat, won't buy any: They don't buy modified wheat.

In fact Japan has already canceled the June shipment.

For the Union of Concerned Scientists - this is a big-I-told-you-so. Scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman sees this as another unintended consequence of putting immortality genes into crops like wheat and corn and soybeans to make them resistant to Roundup.

The idea is that farmers can more easily weed their fields. "On the other hand, in other crops this has lead to what is literally, in the east, and especially in the Southeast, moving into our Corn Belt, an epidemic of weeds that are resistant to these herbicide," said Gurian-Sherman.

The weeds can apparently pick up the protective gene, requiring stronger weed killers - and suddenly farmers are in an arms race with nature.

And we know who bats last in that game.

"This is not the first time this has happened," said Gurian-Sherman. "It's happened a number of times. And it clearly shows there are systemic problems in our regulatory system. If you understand it as kind of a 'canary in the coal mine' you need to understand further that there are probably a thousand of these field trials given permits every year and some of those genes could be out there before there is any safety testing. Potentially this is the tip of an iceberg."

The wheat is safe to eat, but Japan still wont import it until the USDA solves the mystery of the plant that wouldn't die.

Dave Ross, KIRO Radio Morning News Anchor
Dave Ross hosts the Morning News on KIRO Radio weekdays from 5-9 a.m. Dave has won the national Edward R. Murrow Award for writing five times since he started at KIRO Radio in 1978.
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