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Northwest farmers anxiously await verdict on source of GMO wheat

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Wheat growers in Oregon and Washington are anxiously watching and waiting as the Department of Agriculture inspectors examine the evidence to find out how Roundup Ready wheat mysteriously appeared in an eastern Oregon farmer's field.

At stake is a multi- million dollar export wheat crop headed for Asia. The danger of rejection of this crop by Japan, Korea and Taiwan due to genetically modified organism (GMO) contamination has wheat farmers very worried.

The wheat in question is a variety genetically engineered to resist glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. Field tests were conducted in 16 states, including Oregon, where it was last tested in 2001. Monsanto withdrew its application to develop the variety in 2004, in large part because farmers said export markets didn't want GM wheat.

Laura Pryor, who served 20 years as Gilliam County judge told the Oregonian that the region is globally connected. "The economic base of these counties on the Columbia plateau in Oregon and Washington is based on the production of soft white wheat and a few other grains," she said.

The GM issue is confusing to some growers, in part because wheat has been intensely bred and carefully cultivated by Oregon State University and other university research programs.

Breeders have come up with plants that can tolerate drought, withstand winter cold and resist various diseases. They've tinkered with plant height and stiffness to better support heavy, kernel-filled heads and to ease seed loss from wind.

Earl Pryor and many other Oregon farmers grow an OSU-developed variety called Clearfield, which tolerates the herbicide imazamox. It's not "Roundup Ready," doesn't resist glyphosate and isn't considered genetically-modified because it was developed using traditional plant-breeding methods rather than DNA insertion.

Farmers shrug at why one plant development method is OK and the other isn't. They generally support biotechnology research, saying it may prove crucial in feeding a hungry world.

"In countries where your belly button is chewing on your backbone, it's probably not an issue," says Darren Padget, a fifth-generation Sherman County grower. "

But according to Ignatio Chapela, Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, there are serious risks involved with GMO crops that are not present with conventional ones.

According to Chapela for every transgenic manipulation there is a different consequence. Most of these consequences are still unknown to scientists but one that has been observed is the leaking of genetic material into the soil through roots. This is happening with Roundup Ready crops and is resulting in the killing of soil bacteria.

It is also known that inserted genetic material is promiscuous and is able to insert itself into virus and bacteria enabling it to move horizontally through an environment gradually taking over and pushing out biodiversity.

This is especially dangerous in places like Oaxaca Mexico where Chapela discovered Roundup Ready corn growing among native corn that contains an essential corn gene pool.

This article is based on a story in the Oregonian by Eric Mortenson.

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