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Wednesday, October 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Feds respond to discovery of genetically engineered wheat on Washington farm

Federal officials have found genetically engineered wheat growing in Washington state, but they would not say where. In this 2018 photo, a local farmer unloads harvested wheat from his combine into a trailer on a farm near Reardan, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Federal officials have found genetically engineered wheat growing in Washington state, but they would not say where. In this 2018 photo, a local farmer unloads harvested wheat from his combine into a trailer on a farm near Reardan, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A federal agency has discovered genetically altered wheat plants growing in Washington state that were engineered to be resistant to the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide.

Agency officials haven’t given any more details about where the plants were found.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, said in a news release earlier this month that genetically engineered wheat plants were found “in an unplanted agricultural field” in Washington and that the plants were altered to be resistant to glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in the popular and controversial Monsanto herbicide Roundup.

“At this time, we are still gathering information,” APHIS spokesman Rick Coker said in an email response to questions. “We will provide additional information on this event as soon as we can.”

The genetically altered wheat is designed to allow farmers to spray herbicide on the crop to kill all other plants without damaging the wheat. The announcement is important because several wheat-importing countries have reacted strongly to past discoveries of genetically engineered wheat, which was last discovered growing in Washington in 2016.

Several Asian countries temporarily halted purchases of U.S. soft white wheat after genetically modified wheat was found unexpectedly in a field on an Oregon farm in 2013. It also popped up in a field at a university research center in Montana in 2014.

According to news archives, Monsanto stopped testing modified wheat a decade ago, and it was never certified for commercial growing. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are organisms whose genetic material has been altered. Among other things, that designation includes plants, bacteria, fish and mammals.

The Food and Drug Administration has said GMOs are safe and little scientific concern exists about the safety of those on the market. But critics say not enough is known about their risks and they want GMOs labeled so people know what’s in their food.

As for the most recent discovery in Washington state, Coker, the APHIS spokesman, said “there is no evidence that GE wheat has entered the food supply.”

Steve Mercer, spokesman for the U.S. Wheat Associates, said he had no more information than what was provided by Coker in a news release.

“In this situation there is no disruption in trade, and we do not expect any,” Mercer said in an emailed response to questions.

Hector Castro, spokesman for the Washington Department of Agriculture, said the state agency was aware of the discovery.

“We were notified, but beyond that, the review of what occurred or any other matters related to this incident are being addressed by USDA-APHIS,” he wrote in an email.

After previous detections of genetically engineered wheat, the USDA strengthened its oversight of regulated genetically engineered wheat field trials. APHIS now requires developers to apply for a permit for any genetically engineered wheat planted after Jan. 1, 2016, according to the news release.

The “USDA is collaborating closely with our domestic and international trading partners, and we are providing our trading partners with timely and transparent information about our findings,” Coker said.

Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission, said the response to the 2019 discovery is strikingly similar to the 2016 situation. In that case, importers threatened to stop shipments of Washington wheat until U.S. officials gave them the ability to test for genetically engineered traits. That ability to test is already in place, he said.

“I think that communication is sufficing,” Squires said. “Hopefully, it stays that way. But it sounds like nothing newsworthy happened with this one.”

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