It's been two months since Japan suspended U.S. wheat imports after an Oregon farmer found unapproved genetically modified wheat growing in his field. Despite being no closer to understanding how the wheat seeds got there, the Agriculture Department believes normalized wheat trade with Asia will resume within a month.
For the farmers whose livelihoods are at stake, it's a $2.5 billion gamble. The wheat crop is getting ready to harvest, and if two of the biggest markets in the world -- Japan and South Korea -- don't open their doors to U.S. wheat by then, we'll need a whole new round of Farm Aid concerts to assist those decimated by the GM debacle.
The problem began in May, after a farmer applied Monsanto's (NYSE:MON) Roundup herbicide to his wheat fields but still found plants sprouting. While the overapplication of weed killers is leading to the creation of so-called superweeds resistant to Roundup, the farmer still should not have had any wheat growing. Because of the ban on genetically modified wheat around much of the globe, there is no such wheat grown anywhere.
Not every crop is so protected. Between Monsanto, DuPont (NYSE:DD), and Syngenta (NYSE:SYT) -- the "three sisters" of GMO seeds -- they control 53% of the world's seed production, yet their control of our food supply is almost universal because of their cross-licensing agreements among themselves and with others, like Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW).
So even though the wheat plants are supposedly not able to survive, there they were. That development launched a major crisis and investigation. Japan, the world's largest importer of U.S. wheat, and South Korea, the fourth largest, both suspended imports. And last month for the first time in 53 years, Japan offered to buy wheat that wasn't U.S. western white.
Monsanto immediately suspected sabotage. There had been demonstrations by activists leading up to the wheat's discovery, and President Obama had just signed the so-called "Monsanto Protection Act" that prohibits federal courts from halting the sale or planting of modified or engineered seeds. Since that strain of GM seed hadn't been used in years, and then only on an experimental basis, it was unlikely it was a chance occurrence.
Yet the USDA said all the seed used during the testing had been destroyed, except for a small amount kept at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Colorado. Heck, the government wasn't able to keep weaponized anthrax secure in a bunker without having some of it stolen, so it's not so far-fetched to suspect that wheat seed might have walked at some point.
Canada experienced a similar problem last year when genetically engineered wheat suddenly appeared in its fields, though it doesn't seem to have been the result of a nefarious plot. Rather, Canada geese are suspected of having eaten the crop and later expelled the seeds in their droppings.
Yet both instances highlight the risk that GM seeds can pose to the economy. As no other signs of GM wheat have surfaced (or no other farmer has been brave enough to come forward), it looks like a one-off problem for the industry, though seeds escaping controlled environments and cross-pollinating unadulterated wheat could end up threatening the whole notion of the U.S. serving as the world's bread basket.
Fool contributor Rich Duprey and The Motley Fool have no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.