USDA investigates unapproved GMO wheat found in Washington state

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed the discovery of unapproved, genetically modified (GM) wheat plants growing in an un-planted agricultural field in Washington state.

There was no evidence the wheat had entered the food supply, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said in a statement on Friday. The wheat is resistant to glyphosate, a widely used herbicide commonly referred to as Roundup.

“USDA is collaborating with our state, industry and trading partners, and we are committed to providing all our partners with timely and transparent information about our findings,” the statement said.

There are currently no commercially approved genetically modified wheat varieties, and incidences of rogue plants are rare. However, unapproved plants were found in 2018 in Alberta, Canada, in 2016 in Washington state, in 2014 in Montana and in 2013 in Oregon.

A Bayer Crop Science spokeswoman said the latest finding may have occurred on the site of a former field trial. Last year Bayer bought Monsanto, which in the late 1990s and early 2000s developed wheat genetically modified to withstand its Roundup herbicide, a weed killer containing glyphosate.

Monsanto shelved the genetically engineered wheat in 2004 amid market concern about rejection from foreign buyers. The United States was the world’s second-largest wheat exporter after Russia in the 2018/19 marketing year.

“We have been informed by USDA of a possible detection of GM wheat in Washington State, possibly on the site of a former field trial,” Bayer Crop Sciences spokeswoman Charla Lord said.

“We are cooperating with USDA to gather more information and facts as the agency reviews the situation,” Lord said.

Samples of the wheat plants from the field in Washington were sent to the USDA’s Federal Grain Inspection Service lab in Kansas City, Missouri, as well as a USDA lab in Pullman, Washington, for testing and confirmation, according to a joint statement from the National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates, a trade group that promotes U.S. wheat sales.

Bayer, which inherited litigation over Roundup with its $63 billion acquisition of Monsanto last year, faces lawsuits by more than 13,400 plaintiffs in the United States, alleging the product causes cancer.

A California jury last month awarded more than $2 billion to a couple who claimed Roundup caused their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was the largest U.S. jury verdict to date against the company in litigation over the chemical.

Additional reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Sandra Maler