Tests have revealed that traces of genetically modified grains are repeatedly creeping into U.S. wheat supplies, even as the debate rages over whether the world's first biotech wheat variety should be released in North America, grain industry sources said.
Biotech soybeans and corn, the two most widely grown genetically modified crops in the world, are the common culprits. Traces of the GM crops have been found not only in unmilled wheat but also in flour used to make bread and other foods, sources said.
The findings come at a time when debate over biotech wheat is reaching a near-fever pitch.
Critics fear that Monsanto Co.'s (MON.N) plans to release a genetically modified spring wheat in the United States and Canada will cripple wheat exports and add complications and costs for domestic players. The Canadian Wheat Board, which controls that country's wheat exports, pleaded with Monsanto this week to drop its bid for North American regulatory approval.
Many countries that buy grain from the United States refuse to purchase bioengineered varieties, saying their consumers fear that the long-term health and environmental impacts of the GM grains have not been established.
At Rank Hovis, the largest miller in the United Kingdom and an importer of U.S. wheat, testing for biotech contamination has repeatedly found evidence of genetically modified soybeans and corn particles mixed in with wheat supplies, wheat director Peter Jones said.
"We routinely find beans and maize (in wheat) and we must accept that these are genetically modified," said Jones.
U.S. industry sources are reluctant to discuss the matter openly because of fears of scuttling U.S. wheat sales to countries wary of genetically modified crops.
But they say the findings of biotech materials in nonbiotech wheat illustrate the difficulties that lie ahead in trying to segregate wheat, the most actively traded grain in the world.
"We've already got GM contamination in wheat in small levels from non-GM sources," said one U.S. milling source. "If we can't keep the corn and soybeans out of the wheat, how are we going to keep the GM wheat out of the wheat?"
"The slightest little detection can complicate wheat shipments going out of this country," said Steven Tanner, director of the U.S. Grain Inspection Packers Stockyards Administration technical services division.
"The question comes down to what is reasonable. If you're going to say zero tolerance you might as well stop world trade," Tanner said.
Millers said cleaning techniques remove most if not all traces of foreign matter, though some small amounts are making it into flour.
In the United States, some major flour companies have started testing wheat for customers who do business in other countries where no genetically modified foods are allowed. Samples have turned up positive, causing headaches and revisions to contracts, industry sources said.
The wheat most likely mixes with foreign materials as it moves through storage and transportation systems that handle a variety of grains, experts said.
The issue is not a new one. Four years ago, Thailand detected genetically modified materials in a shipment of U.S. wheat and determined that GM corn was to blame. The government then announced it would ban the import of all GM seeds.
U.S. Wheat Associates said that it is not only U.S. wheat that often contains small amounts of biotech grains.
In the European Union, which imports about 2 million tonnes of spring wheat from the United States and Canada annually, many European grain companies have developed tests to determine the presence of nonwheat biotech material down to a level of 0.1 percent, according to U.S. Wheat Associates.
Wheat industry sources said most grain traders - both sellers and buyers - would rather avoid testing wheat. They prefer to rely on the "letters of assurance" that routinely accompany U.S. and Canadian wheat sales. The letters certify there are "no transgenic wheat varieties for sale or in commercial production."
But once regulatory approval is granted, even if Monsanto still has not released its biotech wheat, those assurances could be lost.
"Europe has already been testing wheat," said U.S. Wheat Associates vice president Nelson Denlinger. "When you get down to commercialization you're going to have a major problem if people want non-GM wheat."
Written by: Carey Gillam, Planet Ark
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