U.S. seeking source of rogue wheat

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Reuters / The United States is still racing to determine how unapproved genetically modified white winter wheat was found growing in an Oregon field, a discovery that caused South Korean buyers to step aside and other importers to step up testing.

A top official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture said investigators are “pursuing many avenues” to determine how the wheat — which carries a gene making it resistant to glyphosate herbicide applications — popped up in late April.

“At this point we have not… eliminated any” potential causes, Bernadette Juarez, deputy director of the investigative unit with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

South Korean millers suspended imports of U.S. wheat May 31 and some Asian countries increased inspections after the discovery of the unapproved wheat, but stopped short of imposing import bans.

U.S. officials are attempting to tamp down global alarm about the wheat, developed by biotech giant Monsanto Co. more than a decade ago but never put into commercial production. Field tests on GMO wheat were last conducted in 2005.

The discovery of the long-forgotten strain prompted major buyer Japan to shun wheat from the Pacific Northwest at its weekly tender May 30, while the European Union said it would step up testing.

Canadian sales boost?

So far, rival exporter Canada has not seen any benefit from the incident, a major Canadian merchant said, predicting that the nervous response from buyers might soon fade.

“It’s like the lights going out in the restaurant I was in last night. Nobody really expects they’ll stay out for very long,” Curt Vossen, chief executive of Richardson International Ltd. told Reuters. “It might be five minutes, but they’ll come on again fairly quickly.”

CWB president Ian White said the development is unlikely to result in additional sales for Canada.

An industry official in the Philippines, which buys about four million tonnes of wheat a year and relies mainly on U.S. supplies, said the country could turn to Canada if it decides not to import from the U.S.

The impact of the GMO wheat find has been felt mostly on cash prices in the Pacific Northwest, a key market for Asian buyers to purchase supplies of white wheat.

U.S. scientists had conducted weeks of quiet field work and complex tests before the bombshell news was announced.

To pin down the origin of the wheat, USDA extracted DNA from the tissue of wheat plants collected by its investigators from the Oregon field, and sent material to three facilities.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said the wheat posed no threat to human health. The wheat had received clearances for food and feed safety but no varieties had been put forward for commercialization when Monsanto withdrew from the program.

Red spring wheat that was resistant to glyphosate was also tested in Canada until 2004. It had received food, feed and environmental safety clearances from Health Canada. But varieties had not been submitted for registration when Monsanto withdrew.

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