Monsanto’s chief technology officer Robert Fraley characterized the discovery of genetically-engineered wheat plants in a farmer field in Oregon as “suspicious,” in a recent media briefing.
USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service began investigating the incident after volunteer wheat plants in the field survived an application of glyphosate herbicide. Testing indicated that the wheat contained Monsanto’s genetically-engineered trait for glyphosate resistance.
While the specific GE wheat, known as CP4, has been recognized as safe by FDA, it is not approved for commerce or production anywhere in the world.
The ongoing mystery of how the wheat got there has created “a tremendous amount of uncertainty and misinformation about what is going on in the wheat marketplace,” Fraley said. “While Japan and Korea have temporarily suspended new purchases of soft white wheat, it is important to note that we are not aware of any wheat orders being cancelled or any wheat deliveries being rejected, and there has been no adverse effect on wheat prices.”
As of late June, USDA’s investigation indicated no GE wheat in commerce. This includes testing of two varieties, ROD and WB528, which were planted on the Oregon grower’s 123-acre field and harvested from the field in 2012. USDA also reported no GE wheat plants in adjoining fields.
Fraley said that Monsanto has tested the seed for 58 wheat varieties which represented more than 80 percent of all the acres of soft white wheat seed varieties grown in Oregon and Washington for 2011 and found no evidence of the GE trait. In addition, Washington State University confirmed that they have screened public and private varieties representing 90 percent of Washington’s soft white wheat crop and found no evidence of glyphosate-resistant wheat. Together, the testing represents over 97 percent of the white wheat varieties planted in Oregon in 2011.
According to Fraley, testing and investigation indicates that the volunteer GE wheat is an isolated incident and is “not explained by seed contamination or normal farming practices.”
Fraley added that “neither seed left in the soil or wheat pollen flow, serve as a reasonable explanation behind this reported detection at this time.”
He explained that the viability of wheat seed lasts only one or two years in the soil. Wheat is a self-pollinating plant and 99 percent of its pollen moves less than 30 feet from its source.
An internal investigation by Monsanto “confirmed that it did not have a prior test site at the location where the material under investigation was reported to have been present,” Fraley said.
From 1998 to 2005, Monsanto field tested glyphosate-resistant wheat in 16 states, including Oregon. The product was never commercialized, and the testing program in Oregon concluded 12 years ago. “Since that time, we have not seen any other reports of glyphosate-resistant volunteers anywhere,” Fraley said. “Our program for closing out the Roundup Ready wheat program was rigorous, documented and audited.”
Fraley said all of the seed from the cooperative field research program was destroyed or shipped to Monsanto in St. Louis or to USDA’s Agricultural Research Service facility in Colorado. “USDA has confirmed that the material that was sent to at Colorado facility has been destroyed. We know that the farmer himself never participated in any of the field testing and to the grower's knowledge the field in question was never used in any trials,” Fraley said.
“We believe that this farmer is a victim in this situation and we have respected his decision to remain anonymous,” he added.
Fraley said the incident, “in our opinion, is suspicious.” Fraley noted that the volunteer plants appeared in “clumps and patches,” and if the CP4 event was present in the original seed, plants would be uniformly distributed throughout the field.
“From what we know about planting, harvesting and volunteer management indicates the strong possibility that someone intentionally introduced wheat seed containing the CP4 event in this field sometime after the farmer initially planted it.”
Fraley said Monsanto had made requests for the testing methods, results and plant samples related to the investigation. “We believe that such information will be vitally important to allow us to further understand the chain of custody of plants in question and more importantly, we believe these samples will allow us to fingerprint the exact wheat variety that is being implicated. This is critical information that can provide further insight into the source of the CP4 event.
“For example, if the fingerprint analysis would confirm it to be a hard red spring wheat variety found as a volunteer in a soft white wheat field, it would reinforce the likelihood of intentional contamination.”
Fraley said he did not believe that the chain of custody for the USDA-bound seed has been compromised.
Fraley said USDA investigators “are continuing to conduct interviews with approximately 200 area growers.”