From Bio Journal - July 2013

Closeup: The GM wheat problem

It has been confirmed that GM wheat has been found growing on a farm in Oregon, USA. The GM wheat is a Monsanto herbicide-resistant variety concerning which Monsanto withdrew from development and terminated cultivation trials eight years ago, in 2005. It is possible that during this time the variety has found its way onto the market.

It is thought that Monsanto began outdoor trials of herbicide-resistant GM wheat around 1998. In December 2000, the company applied for approval from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In order to grow GM crops in the USA, approval of the crop must first be granted by the EPA, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The company later applied for approval in other countries, including Japan, and carried out procedures to attempt to gain simultaneous world approval. The applications for approval in many countries before actual planting in the USA were made because recall and disposal, as well as litigation such as claims for damages, may occur due to contamination during distribution if unapproved varieties are distributed.

However, resistance to GM wheat is strong, and when a petition containing signatures of more than 1.2 million Japanese consumers (Japan being the worldfs largest wheat importer) was taken to the US and Canada, opposition movements spread in those countries, and Monsanto announced its withdrawal from the herbicide resistant wheat and withdrew all of its applications except the ones to the American government on 21 June 2004, finally terminating trials in 2005.

In 2009, the wheat-growing organizations of the three countries USA, Canada and Australia announced their intention to promote GM wheat. The background to this was the existence of the Monsanto drought resistance wheat, then under development. On the basis of this declaration, Monsanto began trials of its drought resistant wheat in 2011 and, as in the case being discussed here, there were concerns about genetic pollution.

The USAfs annual wheat production in 2012 was 61.76 million tons, of which 27.90 million tons were exported. The amount of wheat exported worldwide was 137.38 million tons, the USA thus accounting for roughly 20% of world exports. Asia is the largest importer, Japan importing 6.30 million tons. Of which around 60% is from the USA, 20% from Canada and 20% from Australia. Japanfs self-sufficiency rate in wheat is a mere 9% (2011).

Wheat is divided into two types, winter wheat, sown in autumn and harvested the following spring, and spring wheat, sown in spring and harvested in autumn. It is also divided into two main types, white wheat and red wheat, on the basis of the colour of the husk. Moreover there are four types of wheat based on hardness; hard, intermediate, soft and durum. Spring wheat grown in Canada and the northern USA generally becomes hard wheat flour, which is used as the raw material for bread in Japan. Compared with spring wheat, winter wheat contains less gluten and is not suited for bread making. Oregon wheat is generally soft, white winter wheat, e.g. gsoft white,h used for feed, and gwestern white,h used for cakes. The GM wheat discovered recently in Oregon was gsoft whiteh for feed.

Wheat is one of the main products of Oregon, located on the west coast of the USA and well known for its natural beauty. The exporting port for Oregon wheat bound for Japan is Seattle in Washington State, just north of Oregon. Wheat from Oregon is exported to Japan along with wheat transported to Seattle from other states. A close watch will be kept on the results of the investigation by the US government to see how far the genetic pollution has spread.

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