Mystery deepens on how genetically modified U.S. wheat landed in field

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 04, 2013 5:37 PM

By Tom Polansek and Carey Gillam

CHICAGO/KANSAS CITY (Reuters) - The Oregon field in which a farmer found sprouts of unauthorized genetically modified wheat was never used to study altered varieties, a lawyer for the grower said on Tuesday.

The farmer has "no idea" how the altered wheat made it into his 125-acre field, said Tim Bernasek, a partner at the Portland law firm Dunn Carney.

The disclosures heightened the mystery that has swirled around the farm since the U.S. Department of Agriculture said last week that the strain, modified by seed giant Monsanto Co to tolerate treatments of weed killer, was found.

Monsanto said it had ended its research into the "Roundup Ready" spring wheat nine years ago. At the time, there was broad opposition from international buyers who threatened to boycott the U.S. market. Genetically modified wheat is still not approved for cultivation anywhere in the world.

Buyers in Asia and Europe immediately shunned U.S. wheat purchases after the USDA revealed the discovery of the rogue wheat in Oregon. South Korea and Japan have suspended some U.S. wheat purchases, while the European Union said it would step up testing.

The USDA and Monsanto are investigating but say they do not know how widespread the presence of the unapproved wheat is.

The genetically modified wheat was found on about 1 percent of the farmer's field and was not concentrated in a single area, Bernasek said.

It was discovered after unwanted "volunteer" seedlings survived when sprayed with the weed killer glyphosate, which led to tests that identified the wheat as a Monsanto strain.

The field was planted with two varieties of seeds, called WB-528 and Rod, that were also used on other fields that have tested negative for the unauthorized strain, Bernasek said.

WB-528 is a variety of soft white winter wheat sold by WestBred, which was bought by Monsanto in 2009. Rod is a variety of soft white wheat that was released by Washington State University in 1992.

The farmer does not want to talk to the media about his discovery because of USDA's ongoing investigation, according to his lawyer.

"He's confident that he did the right thing," Bernasek said. "He's doing everything he can to work with USDA."

As investigators probe the issue, some $9 billion in U.S. wheat exports hang in the balance. The United States, the world's largest farm exporter, exports nearly half of its wheat crop.

"STREAMLINED" SYSTEM

Heavy criticism has already hit Monsanto, including a lawsuit filed Monday by a U.S. farmer who is alleging the seed company was negligent in allowing its experimental seed to escape its control.

Monsanto countered that its wheat development program was "government-directed, rigorous and well-documented and audited."

The field trials were conducted under a streamlined system known as "notification," which is more lenient than the tightly controlled permitting process.

Under the permit process, companies must establish buffer areas around field trial sites to help avoid contamination of neighboring fields; to use only dedicated machinery and storage facilities for GMO material; and train personnel. Annual inspections are required.

Under the notification process, there are fewer field inspections and regulators rely largely on developers like Monsanto for evaluating and reporting the adequacy of their controls.

Over time, more and more field trials have come under the notification process and it now accounts for the vast majority of field trials on biotech crops.

In light of the discovery in Oregon, USDA should assess its review process, said U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

"This incident underscores the need for an agency review of field-testing practices to determine how to avoid this situation in the future," he said.

"RELIABLE CHOICE"

Foreign distrust of biotech crops and U.S. regulators' ability to keep them separate from conventional crops has a long history.

When Monsanto was moving to bring its biotech wheat to market nine years ago, foreign buyers threatened to boycott all U.S. wheat purchases rather than risk getting shipments that contained genetic modification.

U.S. Wheat Associates, the industry organization that markets U.S. wheat to international buyers, claims as its slogan "The world's most reliable choice," and has worked for more than a decade to try to assure world buyers that any release of genetically modified wheat will be well regulated and controlled.

But the contamination issue undermines that effort, said Dawn Forsythe, former director of public affairs for U.S. Wheat.

"What makes this thing so devastating is it goes both against choice and reliability," she said. "Japan and Korea and some of the other major anti-GM countries have made assurances to their consumers and they in turn rely on the U.S. If our regulatory system can't deliver, then we do have a problem."

(Editing by Bernard Orr)