How Wheat Producers Counteracted a GMO Crisis
Facing a controversy that could have damaged industry efforts to introduce GMOs to the U.S. wheat supply, two trade groups focused on their messaging to reassure their members and the public.
It was a discovery that shook the markets.
Last year an Oregon farmer noticed that some of the wheat in his field failed to react to the weed killer glyphosate, popularly known as Roundup. After testing, it was discovered that the crop had the traits of a genetically modified strain of wheat often called “Roundup Ready,” which the seed giant Monsanto developed years ago to be resistant to its popular weed killer.
That’s a problem because, while GMO soybean and corn crops are common and legal, GMO wheat cannot be sold commercially in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has never approved a genetically modified strain of wheat, though Monsanto has tested it. If Monsanto had been found liable for the wheat getting out into the wild, it could have been subject to a huge fine.
More important, the discovery led international markets, most notably Japan and South Korea, to stop importing wheat from the U.S. Wheat futures prices dropped significantly, and some farmers sued.
An Industry Reacts
Soon after the story broke last year, the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and U.S. Wheat Associates (UWA) jumped into action, launching joint responses to the issues raised by the crisis.
“As industry leaders, we will cooperate with authorities in the United States and international markets to understand the facts surrounding this incident and help minimize its impact,” the two groups wrote in a May 2013 statement.
The associations generally support the eventual use of biotechnology in wheat but understood that the Oregon discovery caused alarm among some consumers and others concerned about the use of genetically modified organisms in the food supply.
“We can’t be afraid of technology,” NAWG President Bing Von Bergen told Brownfield Ag News earlier this year. “We believe it’s necessary for us to feed the world. We need to keep moving forward to keep wheat competitive with the other commodities.”
To balance these interests, the groups focused on messaging. NAWG, for example, created a web page dedicated to the investigation into the Oregon wheat, offering background from the association and government agencies.
In June, the associations, along with similar organizations in Canada and Australia, updated their stance on biotech wheat crops, saying that the industry supports choice and is “committed to ensuring customers have access to both biotech and non-biotech wheat.”
Where Things Stand Now
Last week, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced the findings of its investigation in relation to the Oregon discovery, saying there was no evidence that the wheat entered the food supply, and if it had, it would likely have been safe based on prior Food and Drug Administration research. The results were inconclusive about the source of the wheat.
In the middle of the investigation, a second GMO wheat situation arose in Montana, involving a former Monsanto testing site. It had no connection to the prior discovery.
In a joint statement, NAWG and USW welcomed the APHIS findings, noting that the results show that the industry is succeeding at producing a high-quality supply of wheat. It said it would work to carefully research and potentially introduce GMO options in the future, while keeping options open for consumers.
“As we move on from this isolated incident, wheat growers remain committed to keeping up the dialogue with partners and customers at home and around the world,” USW Chairman Roy Motter said in the statement.