RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. A farmer in Oregon has found some genetically engineered wheat growing on his land. This was an unwelcome surprise, because this type of wheat has never been approved for commercial planting. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it's investigating, trying to find out how this wheat got there. The USDA says there is no risk to public health, but wheat exporters are worried about how their customers in Asia and Europe will react to this. NPR's Dan Charles has more.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The biotech company Monsanto has genetically altered some of America's biggest crops so they can tolerate the weed killer glyphosate, or Roundup. It did this with corn, soybeans, canola and cotton. But it did not do this with wheat. It made Roundup-tolerant wheat in the laboratory, and it carried out field trials of genetically engineered wheat in 16 different states. But the country's wheat growers told the company they did not want this novel genetic trait.
STEVER MERCER: Part of the concern was export markets.
CHARLES: Steve Mercer is vice president of communications of U.S. Wheat Associates, which represents wheat growers and exporters.
MERCER: We're not in favor of commercializing any biotech trait unless it's gone through regulator approvals in the U.S. and in other countries.
CHARLES: Many countries are quite hostile to genetically engineered crops, so Monsanto dropped the wheat project. It never asked for government approval, and it ended its field trials in 2005. Fast-forward eight years. About a month ago, a farmer in Eastern Oregon noticed some wheat plants growing where he didn't expect them, and they didn't die when he sprayed them with Roundup.
The farmer sent samples of these curious plants to a scientist at Oregon State University. She found that this wheat was, in fact, genetically engineered. She passed samples on to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and yesterday, the USDA confirmed it. In a statement, the USDA's Bernadette Juarez said her agency is collecting more samples from the farm, conducting more tests.
BERNADETTE JUAREZ: We have a team of dedicated investigators working on the ground daily to figure out what's going on here.
CHARLES: Nobody knows how this wheat got there. Monsanto's last field trials in Oregon were in 2001. After all such trials, the crops are supposed to be completely removed from the fields. Also, nobody knows how widely this genetically engineered wheat has spread, whether it's been in fields of wheat that were harvested for food, for instance.
The USDA says even if it has, there's no danger to public health. Still, if further tests show that this unapproved wheat has spread into the food supply, it could play havoc with wheat sales. In 2006, unapproved genetically engineered rice was discovered throughout the American rice harvest, and it shut down practically all exports for a while. Exporters lost millions of dollars. The wheat harvest is much bigger.
Steve Mercer from U.S. Wheat Associates says there's no indication so far that this will happen in wheat. Right now, it's just a few isolated plants growing in eastern Oregon.
MERCER: We're now in the process of getting in touch with all of our customers. You know, we're going to work to make sure they have all the information that they need and reassure them that this isolated trait hasn't entered commerce.
CHARLES: So far, he says, those customers aren't making any decisions. They're just asking for more information. Dan Charles, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.