Contaminated wheat that triggered a widespread quarantine in the Southwest has been found growing in a tiny plot outside Moses Lake, Wash., federal officials said Tuesday.
Officials suspect the field of durum - a type of wheat used to make pasta noodles - carries the dreaded Karnal bunt fungus prohibited by nearly two dozen grain-buying nations.
Agriculture officials say the fungus was caught early in the growth cycle and should not threaten Washington’s wheat crop, the state’s fourth-largest commodity.
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to determine what action it will take to eradicate the Moses Lake contamination, which could create an image problem for Northwest wheat growers.
“We’re hoping we’ll get it under control and stay ahead of this thing so we don’t have hysteria,” said Jack Silzel, agricultural aide to Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane.
This is the first time that Karnal bunt-infected wheat has been found planted outside of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas or California, where the U.S. Department of Agriculture in early March discovered the fungus for the first time in U.S. history.
The department quarantined several counties and the entire state of Arizona. But a Montana company that planted the Moses Lake field said it brought the durum seed from Arizona prior to the quarantine.
Karnal bunt is a plant disease that poses no threat to human health. But it ruins wheat quality by discoloring the flour and giving it a fishy taste. The spores can spread easily by wind, soil or on grain-handling equipment.
Worse yet, it can ruin the reputation of a growing area.
That could be the biggest problem for exportdependent farmers in the Pacific Northwest, which already faces questions about the quality of its soft white wheat in some Asian nations. China, for instance, won’t touch Northwest wheat because of a separate, harmless fungus that thrives on winter wheat grown under snow cover.
“This is not welcome news,” said Jonathan Schlueter, executive secretary of the Pacific Grain Export Association in Portland.
The United States has agreements with 22 wheat-buying nations, including China and the former Soviet Union, that U.S. grain will be free of Karnal bunt. However, the agreements affect only one regular buyer of Northwest wheat - Chile.
Jim Jesernig, director of the Washington Department of Agriculture, said the Moses Lake field does not threaten the Pacific Northwest’s $1 billion wheat industry.
“This plot will not be a problem. Period,” Jesernig declared. “This is a first-generation plot and there have been no spores released.”
Officials with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the agency charged with controlling the spread of the fungus, have not decided what action they will take.
Dave Keim, head of APHIS’ Spokane office, said since the contaminated seed came from out of state, it should not affect shipment of Washington-grown grain harvested in 1995.
In other locations where the fungus was identified, APHIS has recalled ships, delayed exports, and burned and plowed under fields to ensure that the spores don’t spread.
Jesernig, who plans to tour the site today, said he has received assurances from APHIS that the agency will not quarantine Grant County or the state.
Western Plant Breeders of Bozeman, Mont., planted the field.
“The actual risk to Washington wheat and exports is essentially zero,” said Dan Biggerstaff, general manager of Western Plant, a division of Barkley Seed of Yuma, Ariz. “However, because of extreme importance of the export market, we’ve offered to destroy the crop and sterilize the soil. It’s that simple.”
Western Plant on March 19 seeded the test plot of durum in an isolated field about three miles southeast of Moses Lake, Biggerstaff said. The plot covers one-tenth of an acre, or about the size of a large living room.
Seed used for the crop tested positive for Karnal bunt last week, he said, and the company notified APHIS.
The Moses Lake durum is weeks from entering the flowering stage where Karnal bunt spores are released, Jesernig said.
He said his department, wheat grower associations and Washington State University will examine other fields to ensure that no other contamination exists.
APHIS last week announced a nationwide survey of 2,500 commercial grain elevators and 500 seed companies in 42 states this year to check for traces of Karnal bunt outside quarantined areas.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Karnal bunt at-a-glance