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Careful Purveyors Of Seeds Say Mistakes Still Happen

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.

"A random isolated occurrence"

We’re in downtown Connell – prime Columbia Basin wheat country. Dana Herron is a seed salesman and 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.

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

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 he explains that "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. 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. “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.”

GMO fears

That still isn’t comforting to the Japanese and other Asian markets who have delayed some shipments of U.S. wheat. At a 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. "The Japanese grower and also consumer is very scared about the GMO."

And that’s what alarms Northwest farmers.

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, Wolf says, “you would not be able to see it.”

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

“I’m personally afraid of them on the farm," he says. "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.

On the Web:

Q&A: Investigation of genetically engineered wheat - USDA 
Monsanto and GM Wheat - Monsanto

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.