The global Monsanto genetically modified wheat scandal is getting worse.
As a reminder, recently news broke out that a rogue genetically modified strain of wheat developed by Monsanto, had been found in an Oregon field late last month. But while modified food has long been a diet staple, this particular breed was the first discovery of an unapproved strain, and what made things worse is the lack of any information how the rogue grain had escape from a field trial a decade ago. As Reuters reports, "even after weeks of investigation, experts are baffled as to how the seed survived for years after Monsanto had ceased all field tests of the product. It was found in a field growing a different type of wheat than Monsanto's strain, far from areas used for field tests, according to an Oregon State University wheat researcher who tested the strain."
The USDA was quick to deny any suggestion of public danger:
The USDA said the GM wheat found in Oregon posed no threat to human health, and also said there was no evidence that the grain had entered the commercial supply chain.
But the discovery threatens to stoke consumer outcry over the possible risk of cross-contaminating natural products with genetically altered foods, and may embolden critics who say U.S. regulation of GMO products is lax.
This is compounded by the still fresh memory of the glaring and repeated lies by the Japanese government in regards to the Fukushima explosion, making some wonder just how far the government is willing to go to cover up potential threats if the alternative is widespread panic.
It is all the more alarming because the wheat strain was thought to have been eliminated after test trials ended in 2005, as Monsanto abandoned efforts to secure regulatory approval due to worldwide opposition. While there have been more than 20 majors violations of U.S. regulations on handling or co-mingling biotechnology crops, none have ever involved wheat before.
Ironically, it was that master hypocrite Japan, which is now feeding its population rice grown in the Fukushima evacuation zone, that was first to halt US grain shipments,
[M]ajor buyer Japan canceled plans to buy U.S. wheat while the Europe Union said it would step up testing.
Some analysts feared a potentially damaging blow to the $8 billion wheat export business, recalling the more than yearlong disruption to corn sales following a similar discovery in 2000.
"Unless there's a quick resolution, this is not going to be good for the export market," said Art Liming, grain futures specialist with Citigroup.
And as the global concern about just what consumers are putting into their mouths spreads, South Korean millers were the latest to just announce a suspension of US wheat imports:
South Korean millers suspended imports of U.S. wheat on Friday and some Asian countries stepped up inspections after the discovery of an unapproved strain of genetically modified wheat in the United States, but stopped short of imposing import bans.
South Korea - which last year sourced roughly half of its total wheat imports of 5 million metric tons from the U.S. - has also raised quarantine measures on U.S. feed wheat, while Thailand put ports on alert.
As more countries follow South Korea's example, Asia may suddenly find itself with a major wheat shortage:
Asia imports more than 40 million metric tons of wheat annually, almost a third of the global trade of 140-150 million metric tons. The bulk of the region's supplies come from the U.S., the world's biggest exporter, and Australia, the No. 2 supplier.
But Australia will struggle to soak up extra demand as its supplies tighten in the wake of unsustainably brisk exports and growing demand from domestic livestock farmers.
"The bulk of grain suppliers (in Australia) are cancelling shipping slots and selling grain to domestic feed mills and feedlots," said Stefan Meyer, a manager for cash markets at brokerage INTL FCStone in Sydney.
Japan is not rushing to find alternative sources of wheat, however, with the county's flour milling industry body saying they have sufficient stocks for the short term.
"We haven't thought about alternatives to the grade or proposed candidates to the farm ministry (at this stage)," said Masaaki Kadota, executive director of the Flour Millers Association of Japan.
Perhaps just as well: what better way to avoid even more soaring food import costs than due to an embargo on foreign grain imports. It is unclear if the proposed alternative will be five-eyed fish caught off the Fukushima coast.
Another country even more reliant on the US for wheat is the Philippines:
An industry official in the Philippines, which buys about 4 million metric tons 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.
Hopefully Monsanto's GMed strain didn't mysteriously cross the Canada border as well. Which it very well may have: as of now the source of the spread of the rogue wheat is completely unknown:
Bob Zemetra, the Oregon State researcher, said a local farmer contacted the university in late April after noticing that some wheat plants survived an application of herbicide that was being used to kill off unwanted plants in the fallow field.
Most plants died, but a few wheat plants unexpectedly emerged after the spraying. Researchers determined the wheat is a strain of Roundup-Ready tested by Monsanto in Oregon fields from 1999 to 2001.
GM crops tolerate certain pesticides, allowing farmers to improve weed control and increase yields.
Zemetra said Monsanto had been field-testing spring wheat, while the "volunteer" plants discovered in the eastern Oregon field were winter wheat. The two varieties pollinate at different times, making it unlikely for the GMO traits to have been carried into the field by wind.
"That's why it's a mystery," he said.
Farmers, wondering whether their wheat could unknowingly be genetically modified, have flooded farm bureaus with questions. They should not spray crops with Roundup to check whether they will survive, said Mike Flowers, extension cereals specialist for Oregon State University.
The final word is not surprising: keep calm and keep eating.
"The recommendation right now is to not panic," he said. "We really need to let the investigators do their jobs and get more information before people panic. We don't know if it's widespread. Right now, we know it's in one field."
There's that... And let's not forget the government is always there to help you.
But while the potential dangers are clear for all, one wonder: in a world in which millions of people eat the mystery meat contained in McNuggets, not to mention KFC, each and every day, isn't it a little too hypocritical to be worried about the genetic make up of a loaf of bread?