Groups call for improved oversight of GE field trials

Published on: Aug 22, 2013

More than 150 farm organizations, food processors, millers, retail companies, bakeries, and seed businesses signed a letter calling for improvements in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) oversight of experimental trials of genetically engineered (GE) crops. The letter comes after the USDA announced on May 29, 2013, that an Oregon farmer had discovered unapproved GE wheat in his field.

Wheat harvests are in full swing as the USDA continues its investigation into the Oregon contamination event. This chance discovery underscores the difficulty of completely containing GE crops and the inadequacy of U.S. policy to protect vulnerable markets that reject GE wheat.

“The economic impacts of the GE wheat discovery in Oregon were immediate,” says Clint Lindsey, an Oregon wheat grower who sells to a grain exporter that serves Japan. Lindsey is one of many farmers whose shipments were temporarily put on hold after the unapproved wheat was found. 

“Our customers are still asking us what measures we’re taking to ensure our wheat doesn’t include GE material,” Lindsey says. “We are the ones who have to pay for testing, which increases our costs. The threat of contamination also undermines the credibility of our business.”

Todd Leake, a North Dakota conventional wheat grower who farms more than 2,000 acres, joined Lindsey and other growers in a meeting with Secretary Vilsack last week asking for a halt on GE wheat trials.

“It’s extremely important that the USDA moves to protect the conventional wheat industry from the threat of contamination,” Leake says. “Several GE wheat field trials are underway in North Dakota and have the potential to contaminate our spring wheat supply. Our export markets have zero tolerance for GE traits in our wheat products. They’re importation policies are not going to change. If another contamination event surfaces, the consequences would be devastating. We don’t want to lose our export markets to other countries.”

Among some of the delegation’s requests were the following: 

  • USDA should halt new approvals of GE wheat field trials at least until the Oregon contamination investigation is complete.
  • USDA should fully implement recommendations made by investigative bodies and Congress that aim to improve field trial oversight.
  • USDA should publish a final report detailing the department’s investigation into the Oregon wheat event, including sampling and testing methodologies.
  • Before approving field trials, USDA should have the appropriate tools in hand to test for unapproved GE traits in cases of suspected and confirmed contamination events.
  • USDA should require mandated containment protocols for all GE crop field trials.

More than 400 field trials of GE wheat have been approved across the U.S. over the last two decades. However, the introduction of GE wheat was halted in the U.S. ten years ago due to market rejection abroad. Many U.S. food and beverage companies also reject GE wheat.

Current U.S. policy includes neither mandatory contamination prevention measures nor an adequate system for monitoring the success of containment following trials, the groups claim.

“We are grateful that Secretary Vilsack is taking seriously our concerns and recommendations regarding the department’s oversight of GE crop field trials,” says Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy and communications for Organic Seed Alliance, who joined the delegation in Washington, D.C. “Protecting the genetic integrity of seed and crops must begin at the field trial stage. We hope the department moves forward in fully implementing necessary improvements to protect American farmers and the markets they serve. But these improvements will only be as strong as the department’s oversight and enforcement.”

"This is an issue that affects all farmers, regardless of convention and their markets," Hubbard adds.

The letter signed by these businesses and organizations call for strong requirements for preventing contamination, including enforceable standards for confining GE crops, as well as active monitoring and testing to ensure compliance. View the letter.