Though genetically engineered wheat hasn't been approved for commercial production in the United States, an unauthorized strain of Roundup herbicide-resistant wheat mysteriously sprung up on a single field on an Oregon farm in 2013. The discovery alarmed Kristina Hubbard, the Missoula-based advocacy and communications director at the nonprofit Organic Seed Alliance. In response, she kicked off a campaign seeking stricter regulations on crop testing, writing a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was cosigned by 150 other organizations and garnering an invitation to personally meet with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in Washington, D.C.
This fall, Hubbard learned the USDA is proposing to implement some of the tighter regulations that she and others in the seed integrity community have lobbied for.
"It is a step in the right direction, we welcome this news," says Hubbard, who's quick to defer any credit for the campaign. She applauds the coalition of farmers and seed stakeholders that helped get the attention of the USDA.
The USDA's new plan calls for future field trials of genetically engineered wheat to be conducted under a permit and be more closely monitored to prevent the spread of "volunteer" plants that might contaminate non-genetically engineered fields.
Currently, most field trials are conducted under a "streamlined notification" process that doesn't require actual pre-planting approval from the agency.
"Unfortunately, the Department of Agriculture's oversight has been completely inadequate for ensuring that these experimental crops are, most importantly, staying contained and being destroyed properly and not showing up years later as volunteer plants," Hubbard says.
Hubbard led a delegation that asked the agency to consider such a permit policy at an August 2013 meeting with Vilsack. At that meeting, Hubbard brought along farmers, both organic and conventional, to emphasize how much of a threat genetic contamination poses to national food security.
Bob Quinn, a Big Sandy-based organic farmer and cultivator of the Kamut ancient wheat variety, was among the advocates in attendance. He credits Hubbard with organizing the trip.
"So I don't think she sought an audience with the [agriculture] secretary, but he invited her to come, and she said, 'I'll come if I can bring a few diversified spokespeople,' and he agreed to that," Quinn says. "They offered us I think a 20-minute block, and we were there almost an hour, hour and a half. More than twice the normal time we expected or is normally given. That was another big signal that [Vilsack] was thinking more of a dialogue."
At the time, Vilsack turned down all of the recommendations put forth by Hubbard's group. But two years later, a USDA representative notified Hubbard of the new permit plan proposal.
"I do believe it was critical for Sec. Tom Vilsack to hear from those growers, and I think he heard them that day," Hubbard says. "Now again, are permits enough to provide assurance that future contamination events involving genetically engineered wheat won't happen? No, absolutely not. We're going to keep pushing for stronger regulations and oversight."
A USDA press release attributes the new permit plan to the agency's concerns about the two known instances of genetically engineered wheat plants growing in places where they shouldn't have been. USDA investigators couldn't determine the source of the 2013 Oregon contamination, and an investigation into the eastern Montana incident remains open.
Hubbard says genetic contamination poses an immediate threat to the American wheat industry that can't be ignored. The U.S. is the world's largest exporter of wheat, and much of it goes to countries that reject genetically engineered food, such as Japan. Other crops have already suffered from contamination issues. In 2006, Japan and Russia banned imports of U.S. long-grain rice after an unauthorized genetic strain showed up in tested samples. Farmers won $750 million in a class action lawsuit against the company that created the biotech rice.
The comment period on the USDA's proposed plan closed Oct. 26, and it's unclear when the agency might issue a final decision. Though the proposed changes mark slow progress compared to the rapid pace of genetic engineering technology, Hubbard says they're nonetheless a victory for groups such as the Organic Seed Alliance.
"Our colleagues say that seed work is slow work. It takes years to develop a new variety for farmers, a new finished plant variety that's going to perform well on their farm," Hubbard says. "And I say that seed work is slow work, but policy is much slower. It's nice to see these incremental changes, but we have a long ways to go to protect our seed supply, our food supply, and the livelihoods of farmers."