Escaped Wheat Shows Difficulty of Keeping Crops on the Farm

12:04PM May 31, 2013
Wheat NRCS
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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.


Resistant Weeds


"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 Monsanto had withdrawn an application for approval of the strain nine years ago amid concern that buyers would avoid crops from the U.S., the world’s biggest wheat exporter.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.


Farmer’s Discovery


The farmer’s discovery prompted Japan to suspend imports of western-white wheat and feed wheat and South Korea to increase inspections on imports. South Korea announced it had stepped up inspections of wheat and flour imported from the U.S., and flour millers there said they will halt purchases until an investigation is complete. Prices of the grain fell on the Chicago Board of Trade, headed for the biggest monthly drop since February. Wheat futures for July delivery fell 0.1 percent to $6.955 a bushel at 10:47 a.m.

Monsanto said the Oregon discovery is isolated and shouldn’t concern consumers or trading partners. The USDA said government tests showed the experimental strain was as safe as grain on the market.

The Oregon field was the first in which the genetically modified wheat was found out of place, the company said. The strain was modified to resist glyphosate, the key ingredient of Roundup. Plants so bred permit farmers to kill weeds without endangering crops. Monsanto sells these seeds as Roundup Ready.


Field Trials


All field trials of genetically modified strains are approved by the U.S. regulator before planting and test crops comply with government requirements, Lee Quarles, a company spokesman, said by e-mail.

"Monsanto was very thorough to make sure we followed protocols," said Robert Zemetra, who teaches wheat genetics at Oregon State University and conducted one of the Monsanto field trials while at University of Idaho.

Monsanto conducted eight Oregon field trials on herbicide- tolerant wheat between 1999 and 2002, according to a database administered by the USDA. Monsanto suspended field trials of herbicide-tolerant wheat in 2005 and resumed them in 2011, with 15 trials at sites in North Dakota and Hawaii, the data show.

The company in 2009 acquired WestBred LLC for $45 million to re-enter the market for wheat, joining Dow Chemical Co. and DuPont Co. in developing those modified seeds.


Escaped Canola


Unauthorized releases of transgenic products such as corn and rice have been plentiful, with 22 documented cases over the past two decades, according to a study by Norman Ellstrand of the University of California, Riverside.

The 2000 release of Aventis SA’s StarLink corn cost as much as $288 million in lost revenue and a yearlong drop in the grain’s price, the U.S. General Accountability Office said in a 2008 report. The 2006 release of Bayer AG’s Liberty Link rice led to a $750 million settlement in 2011 with about 11,000 U.S. farmers.

A genetically altered strain of canola is still being plucked from rail yards near Japanese ports by anxious local volunteers, years after the plants, of unknown origin, were discovered in the country.

Also in eastern Oregon, genetically modified creeping bentgrass pollen was found 13 miles from fields where it was being tested, many times the mandated isolation distance, according to a 2004 Environmental Protection Agency study. Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. agreed to a settlement with the USDA and a fine of $500,000 over the handling of those field trials.

"It was a spectacular story of gene flow," Ellstrand said in an interview. "Nobody had ever tested at that distance."

In the case in Oregon revealed this week, Zemetra said it’s not clear exactly how the wheat got into the field. It’s unlikely the seeds stayed dormant in the ground for years, and then finally germinated. More likely is that it got mixed -- to a small volume -- into the seed supply, Ellstrand said.


Environmental Worries


"Somebody has been breeding this wheat, inadvertently for a number of years, whether a seed company or this farmer," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Researchers are divided about the risks of the releases. Few of those documented have led to widespread environmental damage.

"I don’t see any potential for negative consequences," Val Giddings, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said in an interview. "If there is any problem here at all, as far as I can see, it would be a paperwork regulatory compliance issue. It could be as simple as a single grain of wheat not having been properly disposed of."

Other scientists say risks remain: A wheat plant may pollinate a weed, such as goatgrass, leading to a Roundup resistant variety, said Gurian-Sherman.


Increased Infestation


Because of natural selection, that strain may thrive, leaving farmers with weeds that are harder to control and the need for other, more expensive herbicides, he said.

"The main issues here are environmental," Gurian-Sherman, who published a paper on the issue, said in an interview. His group is pressing the USDA to strengthen rules meant to segregate genetically modified crops from other strains or wild relatives. The agency isn’t poised for that, based on this case.

"While we take this situation very seriously, it is too early in the investigation to draw any definitive conclusions," Ed Curlett, a USDA plant-inspection service spokesman, said by e-mail, responding to calls for changes in test rules. "We will continue to work on all aspects of the investigation."