The isolated genetically engineered wheat plantings found in an eastern Oregon field have caused Asia to suspend new shipments of Western White wheat, spurred at least one federal lawsuit against St. Louis-based Monsanto, and brought on multiple investigations in a mystery that may never be solved.
The mystery that needs solving involves how Roundup Ready wheat got into the Oregon field more than a decade after trials in the state ended with a company decision not to go forward with it.
Did it grow from seeds left in the ground or from drifting pollen? Since the discovery, Monsanto has not been silent. Oregon was one of 16 states where Roundup Ready trials were conducted, but apparently not any near this field. In a statement, Monsanto said seeds only remain viable in soil for up to two years, and pollen usually only moves about 30 feet from its source.
Robert Zemetra, professor of plant breeding and genetics at Oregon State University, told the Wall Street Journal that it’s possible for wheat pollen to drift to other fields and cause genes to transfer to new plants. But he doubts it happened in this case because the research trials that ended in Oregon in 2001 are too far away from this farm.
Zemetra was involved in the Roundup Ready wheat trials while working for the University of Idaho. OSU confirmed it was the biotech wheat growing on the Oregon farm.
From an economic viewpoint, more important than solving the mystery is coming up with a way to clear wheat as being GMO-free. When it announced it was suspending new shipments of Western White wheat, Japan said it had no way to test wheat for genetic modifications.
Monsanto responded with a validated testing method for the original Roundup Ready wheat trait. It provided the test to USDA and to government regulators in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the European Union.
“We have cooperated with the USDA and other regulatory authorities so that they can continue to have full confidence in U.S. wheat exports,” said Philip Miller, vice president of Regulatory Affairs for Monsanto. “While the USDA has noted that they have no evidence that the original Roundup Ready wheat trait has entered commerce, our support is aimed at ensuring that the U.S. wheat industry and wheat farmers do not experience disruptions in exports.”
Monsanto noted there are no food, feed, or environmental safety concerns associated with the presence of the Roundup Ready trait if it is found to be present in wheat.
The glyphosate-tolerance trait used in the original Roundup Ready wheat product has a long history of safe use and produces the same protein that has been and is used widely in corn, soy and several other crops by millions of farmers throughout the world, according to Monsanto.
It says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed the food and feed safety of Roundup Ready wheat in 2004. The safety of the Roundup Ready gene and protein has been reviewed and approved by regulatory authorities in every country around the world to which crops containing that gene have been submitted for cultivation or import approval, including Japan, Korea and the EU, it added.
“We are interested in getting to the bottom of this reported detection in a single field in Oregon,” Miller said. “We’re prepared to provide any technical help that we can as this unusual and currently unexplained report raises important questions about the circumstance and source of the presence.”
Monsanto’s biotech wheat, however, was never approved for commercial use because the company cancelled the project when world wheat markets turned their backs on GMOs. Half of the U.S. wheat crop is for export, a $9 billion market.
Wheat growers do not want to see a repeat of the debacle experienced in 2006 when unapproved genetically engineered rice was found in U.S. harvest, causing it to be locked out of world markets and costing growers millions in lost foreign sales.
While both Korea and Japan are suspending shipments, there is no evidence yet than any GM wheat has entered the supply chain.
Export markets, however, are already upset enough for Kansas wheat grower Ernest Barnes, who farms 1,000 acres in the southwest part of his state. Barnes has sued Monsanto for being negligent in letting the Roundup Ready wheat get loose in Oregon. His Houston attorney, Stephen Susman, says Monsanto failed to protect farmers and their crops.
David Snively, vice president and general counsel for Monsanto, described the lawsuit as “prematurely filed” by “tractor-chasing lawyers.”
The Oregon farmer tried to kill the suspect wheat plantings with Roundup and called in OSU when the growth would not die.© Food Safety News