Editorial: Explanation needed for find in field of GMO wheat

The Japanese love mangoes; they bought $1.5 billion worth from Brazil alone during the last six months of 2012.

They also love the soft white wheat grown in the Northwest. They have traditionally been the largest buyers, although last year they were overtaken by the South Koreans. Those two nations account for one-half of the $1 billion-plus sales of Washington wheat last year.

But the Japanese are not buying now. Nor are the Koreans. The discovery of genetically modified wheat in a single field in eastern Oregon has cut Northwest farmers off from much of the export market where they sell 90 percent of their crop.

Prices traditionally fall this time of year, but the trend has been worse than usual because many buyers are on the sideline.

So, what do mangoes grown in Brazil have to do with soft white wheat grown on the Palouse?

Those mangoes may have been genetically modified, but that has not put off Japanese consumers, or consumers anywhere, apparently. The world eats about 40 million tons of the fruit.

That’s not much succor to wheat growers, who have a new crop in the ground and a lot of questions about how genetically modified grain showed up eight years after Monsanto Co. stopped development because the world was not going to accept GMO wheat the way it had accepted GMO soybeans, corn or mangoes. All the seed was supposed to be returned, or destroyed.

Then the zombie wheat was spotted by a farmer smart enough to know it did not belong there. He sent samples out for testing. The field contained two strains of wheat, one developed at Washington State University, another in Bozeman, and both carried Monsanto’s patented material – Mon71800 – which immunizes the plant against the pesticide Roundup, also Monsanto’s.

The company has confirmed its material is there, as have other labs. The modified wheat has been found nowhere else despite the army of inspectors and scientists sifting through records and grain bins.

But, as a spokesman for the Washington Grain Commission noted, the single incident on an isolated farm has ground markets to a halt. The industry has asked the region’s congressional delegation to get U.S. officials more engaged with their opposites in Japan and Korea. Farmers do not think they have been told all that may have been found out about how it is that GMO wheat can have sprouted, seemingly out of nowhere. On Friday, Monsanto suggested some of its detractors may have planted the modified wheat.

The farmers, their export customers and Northwest residents deserve a satisfactory, scientific explanation for this miracle. With an initiative that would require the labeling of genetically modified food going before voters in November, advocates of the technology will have a difficult sell if they cannot even tell themselves where it is, and isn’t.

The Center for Food Safety, which opposes genetics technology, is among those suing Monsanto in U.S. District Court in Spokane for damages due to its alleged carelessness. Other suits have been filed in Oregon and Kansas.

As the plaintiffs know well, nothing is tougher to kill than seeds of doubt.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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