Unauthorized GMO wheat plants found growing in Washington state

© Vincent Kessler
Genetically modified wheat was found growing in a Washington state field, according to agricultural officials. Regulatory agencies haven’t approved GMO wheat for production in the US, and the discovery could affect wheat sales abroad.

Federal authorities said on Friday that a farmer had discovered 22 herbicide-resistant wheat plants growing in an unplanted field, as first reported by the Associated Press.

The GMO wheat was developed to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, which was created by the seed giant Monsanto. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said it is holding and testing the farmer’s entire wheat harvest, but so far has not found any more GMOs.

The agency added there has been “no evidence of GE wheat in commerce."

Genetically modified wheat is banned for sale or production in the US, and it is not clear how the genetically engineered wheat ended up in Washington.

Monsanto said in a statement that the discovered wheat had been used in limited field trials in the Pacific Northwest from 1998 to 2001, but was never commercialized, noting that its DNA matched strains found in Oregon three years ago.

The farmer’s discovery could impact US wheat trade overseas, where many countries are concerned about the possible safety risks associated with genetically engineered food, with some imposing outright bans on it.

On Friday, South Korea suspended customs clearance for some genetically altered wheat from the United States due to safety concerns, while announcing that the distribution and sale of US wheat will also be halted, according to the Yonhap News Agency

The unapproved genetically modified wheat discovered in Oregon in the spring of 2013 led to worldwide testing of shipments arriving in the European Union and South Korea. China and the Philippines said they would monitor the situation at the time, while Japan stopped importing completely.

The USDA, which closed its investigation after two years, was never able to say how the wheat got there.

In 2014, genetically modified wheat plants were found at a university research center in Montana, where it had been legally tested by Monsanto in the early 2000s.

Asia imports more than 40 million metric tons of wheat annually, almost a third of the global trade, with the bulk of the region’s supply coming from the US.

The USDA has validated a test for Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant wheat available to trading partners and beefed up oversight on engineered field trials, which now require developers to apply for a permit if they involve GMO wheat, starting this year.

The US government has approved genetically engineered crops such as corn and soybeans designated for livestock, and approved their conversion into cornstarch, soybean oil, and high fructose corn syrup, which are used in many popular processed foods.

The Food and Drug Administration recently approved a genetically engineered salmon that will grow faster than a natural one, but it is not yet available for consumption.