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Overseas buyers praise industry for GE wheat handling, but questions remain

Feb 13, 2017

The Washington Wheat Commission says overseas buyers have praised the industry’s handling of the discovery of volunteer Roundup Ready wheat plants found last year in a fallow field in Washington, but are disappointed investigators have not been able to explain how the incident occurred.

Wheat buyers overseas praised the transparency of the industry during the investigation into volunteer Roundup Ready wheat found in a fallow Washington field in 2016, but reiterated their zero tolerance for genetically-modified wheat.

Washington Grain Commission CEO Glen Squires, board members Mike Miller, Dana Herron and Washington State University Extension Director Rich Koenig recently toured Japan, South Korea and the Philippines to meet with customers.

The tour was for a number of reasons. Squires also wanted the customers’ perspective on how the incident was handled.

Japan and South Korea both temporarily suspended wheat tenders until they received updated testing protocol for the GE wheat from Monsanto, which developed the GE wheat found in fields. “We recognize it was a challenging time for both them and us, and we wanted to know how they viewed what transpired,” Squires said.

An executive told the commission the industry got an “A+” for handling the situation, for keeping them informed and keeping it out of consumer hands, Herron said.

Herron said the commission’s repeated trips to the customer countries have established a relationship with the buyers. “It goes without saying we certainly do not want to test this trust with another GE event,” he said.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Japan and company executives wanted to know what the Washington reps thought was the cause.

“Of course, we don’t know the cause,” Herron said.

In December, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service closed its investigation. “APHIS could not determine how these volunteers came to exist in the fallow field after exhausting all leads and resources,” said Rick Coker, public affairs specialist for APHIS.

GE wheat was also detected in Oregon in 2013 and Montana in 2014.

The agency verified that all three GE glyphosate-resistant wheat detections came from APHIS-authorized field tests of GE wheat planted more than a decade ago, Coker said.

APHIS in 2016 established new requirements for GE wheat field trials, such as permit conditions imposing additional record keeping and reporting requirements and extended post-harvest monitoring periods. The new rules are a “significant” step in preventing similar incidents, Coker said.

“However, additional detections of GE wheat related to the early field trials are possible,” he said.

Herron said the lack of conclusions is still a concern. “‘No cause’ is not an answer,” he said. “Our customers don’t like that answer, I don’t like that answer, the Washington wheat industry as a whole doesn’t like that answer.”

A future event would have to involve a federal investigation on the highest level, he said.

“With all the transition and political upheaval in Washington, D.C., I kind of doubt it’s at the top of the agenda,” he said.

“We hope and anticipate it won’t happen again,” Squires said. “But, if it does, regardless of where it happens, the point is we need to have as close communication with our overseas customers as we can.”

By Matthew Weaver,

Capital Press