By Andy Coghlan
Investigations continued this week into how unauthorised genetically modified wheat ended up on a farm in Oregon.
No varieties of GM wheat have been cleared for commercial use anywhere in the world.
The wheat plants in question are believed to be the legacy of a research programme that was abandoned nine years ago. How and why they have resurfaced is unclear.
The discovery last week triggered an international reaction, with both South Korea and Japan temporarily suspending imports of US wheat. South Korea has also begun testing existing wheat imports from the US for signs of GM wheat, with no positive results so far.
The GM wheat was developed by Monsanto, an agricultural biotech giant based in St Louis, Missouri. Like many of Monsanto’s plants, the wheat was developed to be resistant to the company’s broad-spectrum weed-killer glyphosate, marketed as Roundup. The wheat was cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2004 as safe for human consumption, but Monsanto abandoned commercial development the same year, citing a drop in demand.
Representatives of Europe’s wheat industry doubted that the GM wheat identified in Oregon would cause any problems in Europe. Alex Wall, director of the National Association of British and Irish Millerstold New Scientist that the type of white wheat in question is seldom – if ever – imported into Europe. None was imported last year or in 2011, for example.
“It’s better for noodles rather than bread, and is more likely to be exported to Asia from the [US] West coast because of its origin in Oregon,” says Wall.
Investigations by the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service have been under way since 29 May. APHIS was alerted by an Oregon farmer who found that the wheat plants survived after he tried to clear his field using Roundup.
Monsanto says it is mystified by the appearance of the wheat. As part of its programme to develop the GM wheat, it had tested the GM varieties between 1998 and 2004 in 17 US states, including Oregon. But it destroyed all tested material after abandoning the programme in 2004 so, in theory, none should be left.
In a statement issued on Friday, Monsanto said that the farm in question was not part of its original testing programme. “The company’s internal assessments suggest that neither seed left in the soil nor wheat pollen flow serve as reasonable explanations behind this reported detection.”
The company adds that wheat seed seldom survives more than two years in soil, and that 99 per cent of wheat pollen gets deposited within 10 metres.
Monsanto does not believe any of the wheat has entered the commercial wheat supply chain. It says that the suspect samples all came from a single, small farm. “This report is unusual since our programme was discontinued nine years ago, and this is the only report after more than 500 million acres (200 million hectares) of wheat have been grown,” the company’s statement read.