WASHINGTON – The discovery of another unapproved variety of genetically modified wheat in Montana has increased pressure to tighten the regulation of biotech crops, a change that could cause havoc for farmers in Iowa and across the U.S. eager to get their hands on the newest varieties.
The popular crops are staunchly defended by farmers who depend on genetically altered seeds to provide them with higher yields, better-quality products, and lower consumption of chemicals to rebuff attacks from weeds or insects. The result is a boon to their bottom line.
The United States is by far the world’s largest grower of biotech crops, planting 173 million acres in 2013 – almost 4% of all biotech acreage globally. In Iowa, 95% of all corn planted this year came from genetically engineered seeds.
But food and environmental groups are skeptical about the safety of these crops in everyday foods and in the environment in which they grow. The discovery of unapproved wheat has renewed calls for regulators to adopt a slower, more stringent approval process.
“I’d like to say it was surprising that these events happened, but it’s not, really. It’s become the norm, rather than the exception,” said the Center for Food Safety’s Bill Freese, a frequent critic of biotech crops. “They’re not able to prevent contamination from these experimental (genetically engineered) crops to commercial crops, and that’s just caused headaches, huge headaches, very serious financial losses for American agriculture. What’s it going to take to have proper oversight?”
In September, the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees biotech crops, said it found the Monsanto wheat two months earlier on a research field at Montana State University, more than a decade after the crop was legally tested there between 2000 and 2003.
The finding came as the USDA concluded a nearly yearlong probe into a similar wheat discovery in Oregon in May 2013. In that case, the government was unable to determine how the modified seeds developed by Monsanto appeared eight years after testing ended for the biotech variety. Neither wheat strain has been approved for sale or consumption.
Each year, hundreds of tests are conducted around the United States, mostly on corn, soybeans and alfalfa by seed giants including Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service authorized the planting of more than 500 crops that could be tested on as many as 11,300 sites across the nation.