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Area farmers feel effect of GMO wheat

Market for Oregon wheat takes a hit following discovery of GMO wheat in May


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - 'There is a heck of a lot of wheat growing in the state of Oregon,' said Marie Godatti, co-owner of Godatti Farming. 'Our marketplace is not moving right now.'The warm weather over the past few months has been rewarding for most Oregon farmers. Hot, dry spells are sporadically broken up by rainy weather, allowing for crops to be ahead of schedule throughout the region.

It’s been a nice break in the routine for Western Oregon farmers who have grappled with unusually cool, wet springs the past few years.

But Oregon wheat farmers are confronting another challenge that goes beyond weather: market confusion born out of Oregon State University scientists’ discovery in May of genetically modified wheat grown on an Eastern Oregon farm.

The farmer had suspicions about the wheat when he applied the weedkiller Roundup and it failed to have an effect on the wheat. In this case, the gene within the wheat that responds to Roundup and its key ingredient, glyphosate, which is manufactured by biotech giant Monsanto, was removed, resulting in a plant that can be dowsed in the product with no ill effect.

Monsanto has come under fire recently for its GMO technologies that alter the gene structure of plants, such as corn and soy, for the purpose of being resistant to the weed-killing chemicals it produces. The company has also bioengineered crops to be resistant to drought and other environmental conditions that limit plant growth.

While a federal investigation is currently underway to determine how the wheat got there, some Oregon wheat farmers are already beginning to feel the marketing and export problems resulting from the issue. The Oregon crop is usually exported to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other nations, but those countries have banned GMO products.

Marie Gadotti, who owns Gadotti Farming with her husband Joseph, is growing 140 acres of soft white wheat on her Scappoose farm. She said her distributor, who historically has bought her wheat, a significant portion of which is pegged for export, is at a standstill as a broader investigation into the GMO wheat plays out.

“They’re not buying. Korea and Japan are not buying. That could be huge,” she said

Gadotti visited Salem Tuesday, June 11, for a customer appreciation day which ended up turning into a long discussion between farmers as to how they will be handling the GMO wheat dilemma.

Bob Egger, owner of The Pumpkin Patch on Sauvie Island, also said he is somewhat fearful about selling his wheat, but explained that the United States Department of Agriculture is testing wheat grown in the area and doesn’t foresee major losses.

When asked about genetically modified food, Egger said Monsanto is providing technology that will feed the world, such as drought-resistant corn that can more easily feed people in arid climates. However, Egger added, “GMO has no purpose in wheat farming.”

Gadotti said growers in Oregon don’t buy genetically modified seed, partially because none of the distributors are selling it.

Once Gadotti has harvested her wheat, she worries she won’t be able to move it fast enough. Regional storage capacity is already filling up, she said, so it is unclear whether there will be room for her harvest.

“Once it’s ready, and you get very much rain on it, you’re going to have sprouted wheat,” she said. Sprouted wheat has limited uses and less commercial appeal.

Plus, with demand on the slide and supply high, prices are likely to plummet.

“We don’t have a big window,” she said, adding that harvest typically occurs near the end of July, but is dependent on the rain cycle.

Gadotti said she is hopeful the Oregon Department of Agriculture and other regulators will be proactive in clearing up any doubts about the integrity of Oregon wheat as a branded commodity.

“They’ve got to be on point. It doesn’t mean anything for me to be out there. It has to be somebody with some power.”