As it established test plots for its genetically modified wheat, Monsanto Co. imposed tight rules, such as forcing researchers to burn or ship back leftover seeds. It wasn’t enough.
Almost a decade after Monsanto abandoned plans to sell a herbicide-resistant wheat variety, plants with that genetic makeup were found in an Oregon farm field, USDA said this week. Inspectors are trying to determine how the strain turned up years later and how widely it may have spread. Development tests were allowed in 16 states.
Scientists warn that such incidents are likely to persist, given weak federal rules and the strength of natural selection.
"Controlling seed movement is really a big challenge," said Cynthia Sagers, a professor at the University of Arkansas who researches plant evolutionary ecology. "If anyone were looking, they would find this in many other areas as well."
Monsanto fell 3 percent to $101.81 at 12:04 p.m. in New York. It earlier dropped 3.7 percent, the biggest intraday decline since Feb. 20.
For the world’s largest seedmaker, targeted by March Against Monsanto global protests this week over genetically modified foods, the biggest risks are likely to be from farmers confronting export restrictions and from super-weeds made herbicide-resistant by the genetic manipulations meant to help crops survive, researchers say. The USDA, St. Louis-based Monsanto and scientists say that human health isn’t a high risk in this case.
"The real problem will be how agriculture deals with these resistant weeds that we’ve created, signed, sealed and delivered," Sagers said in an in interview. "This is going to be more of what we hear about until USDA takes a harder look at genetically modified crops, and GM escape."
An Oregon farmer tried to kill wheat using Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and found that several plants survived, the USDA said May 29. Monsanto had withdrawn an application for approval of the strain nine years ago amid concern that buyers would avoid crops from the U.S., the world’s biggest wheat exporter. No genetically modified wheat is cleared for commercial sale anywhere in the world.