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Biological Chemistry

Unapproved, genetically modified wheat disrupts U.S. trade

Japan, S. Korea halt U.S. wheat shipments following discovery of engineered wheat growing in Washington state

by Britt E. Erickson
August 4, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 32

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

Japanese and South Korean authorities have put a hold on purchases of western white wheat from the U.S. for food use and stopped distribution of already purchased U.S. wheat. The move comes in response to a farmer’s discovery of 22 genetically modified wheat plants growing in an unplanted field in Washington state.

It is unclear how the wheat ended up in the Washington field. The Department of Agriculture has not approved the cultivation or sale of any genetically modified wheat varieties in the U.S.

USDA confirmed the discovery on July 29, identifying the wheat as Monsanto’s MON71700, containing the CP4-EPSPS protein. This molecule, an enzyme, helps plants tolerate the herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and many generic herbicide formulations.

Organizations representing the wheat industry—U.S. Wheat Associates and the National Association of Wheat Growers—are downplaying the significance of the incident. The groups expect that testing will show there is no detectable MON71700 in the U.S. wheat supply and that exports to Japan and South Korea will start again quickly.

“The materials needed to create the test assay are in Japan, and it should only take two to three weeks” for the Japanese government to start testing, they say. “The results will end the suspension very soon,” the groups predict.

The test was developed by Monsanto and validated by USDA to identify MON71700 in grain shipments. It is available to international trading partners to test U.S. wheat, USDA notes.

USDA officials say there is no evidence that the genetically modified wheat made its way into commerce. And if the grain had made its way into the food supply, the Food & Drug Administration says, “it is unlikely that the wheat would present any safety concerns” because of the small number of plants involved.

The variety is similar, but not identical, to genetically modified wheat found growing in Oregon in 2013. Some food safety advocates suggest it could have been because of lax oversight of field trials of MON71700 conducted by Monsanto from 1998 to 2001.

Because of pressure from such groups, USDA this year beefed up its regulations to require a permit instead of just a notification to conduct field trials with genetically modified wheat.



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