Careful Wheat Farmers, Seed Purveyors Say Mistakes Still Happen

By Anna King

There’s been a lot of speculation but few answers so far about how genetically modified wheat ended up in an Oregon field. Northwest farmers and seed purveyors say they go to great lengths to keep each variety of grain distinct, tracked and pure. And yet they concede, mistakes can still happen.

Connell, Wash.-area seedman, Dana Herron. Photo by Anna King.Dana Herron is a seed salesman. As we talk I notice he’s a really clean guy. He carefully folds his paper napkin, and later he dons gloves to pump gas.

Dana Herron: “My mom always used to say cleanliness is next to Godliness, so maybe it carried through.”

It’s a quality he needs in the seed business where putting the right crops in the right location is everything.

Herron’s business looks like a gravel farm yard with seed silos lined up in rows like portly, stainless steel soldiers. A chained up dog keeps watch. Herron regularly sells commercially approved genetically modified crops like alfalfa and corn. These seeds are carefully bagged and stacked in a warehouse. When he’s done selling the seed for the year, all the leftover bags go back to the original seed company for safekeeping. When Herron’s crews clean out the mill or a bin to switch from one variety to another …

Photo: Connell, Wash.-area seedman, Dana Herron. Photo by Anna King.

Dana Herron: “… there are redundant things we have to do, check. Hammer on things, make sure there are no seeds hung up anywhere. Even with all those protocols we’re human and we still make a few mistakes.”

That’s when he has to get a crew to hand pull foreign plants in fields. Herron says this is industry standard.

Wheat fields north of Pasco, Wash. Photo by Anna King. Farmers and seed managers working with experimental genetically modified organisms have to be even more careful. Just how GMO wheat plants got into a field in Oregon is the subject of an intense U.S. Department of Agriculture investigation. Herron says there are so many possibilities. Birds, mice, wind, tractor wheels, a bin that wasn’t cleaned properly.

Monsanto, the company that developed the GMO crop gene found in Oregon, says it’s been doing its own investigation. The company’s Robb Fraley says Monsanto has tested 50 varieties of seed stocks in Washington and Oregon to make sure the problem is not more widespread.

Robb Fraley: “It seems to be a random isolated occurrence, more consistent with the accidental or purposeful mixing of a small amount of seed during the planting, harvesting and during the fallow cycle in an individual field.”

Photo: Wheat fields north of Pasco, Wash. Photo by Anna King.

That still isn’t comforting to the Japanese and other Asian markets who have delayed some shipments of U.S. wheat. At meeting this week at the Oregon Board of Agriculture, the topic was canola. But Japanese seed distributor Yukio Cato testified no matter what the crop, his customers will purchase seeds elsewhere if they aren't confident of the purity of the Pacific Northwest product.

Yukio Cato: "The Japanese grower and also consumer is very scared about the GMO."

And that’s what alarms Northwest farmers.

Uniontown, Wash., area farmer Frank Wolf. Photo by Anna King.Like the ultra-clean seed salesman from Connell, farmer Frank Wolf says he’s extremely careful about where his seed goes. He relies largely on noodle sales in Asia to sell his soft white wheat each year. Too many foreign grains in his field could render his valuable crop severely discounted. But it’s impossible to control for every tiny seed. And once a genetically modified plant gets into a field …

Frank Wolf: “ … you would not be able to see it.”
Anna King: “So it could sneak into your noodle.”
Frank Wolf: “It could sneak into your noodle.”

Some farmers don’t oppose the idea of wheat genetically modified to resist the herbicide Roundup. But not Wolf.

Frank Wolf: “I’m personally afraid of them on the farm. I think it’s like the ultimate weed.”

He says however this genetically modified wheat got into a field in Oregon; it’s an example to learn from – Northwest markets and livelihoods depend on it.

Photo: Uniontown, Wash., area farmer Frank Wolf. Photo by Anna King.

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