US discovery of rogue GMO wheat raises concerns over controls

US biotechnology company Monsanto linked to Oregon find

An examiner demonstrates the process of analysing the genetically modified wheat sample. Photograph: Lee Jae-Won/Reuters

An examiner demonstrates the process of analysing the genetically modified wheat sample. Photograph: Lee Jae-Won/Reuters


A strain of unapproved genetically modified wheat has been found in the northwestern US state of Oregon. It is being linked to Monsanto, the US biotechnology company whose efforts to create seeds that are resistant to disease and give higher yields are both hailed and opposed with equal conviction.

The genetically modified wheat was developed years ago by Monsanto to tolerate its Roundup herbicide, but the world’s largest seed company scrapped the project and ended all field trials in 2004.

The finding of the GM wheat joins a score of episodes in which biotech crops have eluded efforts to segregate them from conventional varieties.

But it marks the first time that a test strain of wheat, which has no genetically modified varieties on the market, has escaped the protocols set up by US regulators to control it.

“These requirements are leaky and there is just no doubt about that. There is a fundamental problem with the system,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists who served on a biotech advisory subcommittee for the Food and Drug Administration from 2002 to 2005.

Markets spooked
The discovery instantly spooked export markets, with Japan cancelling a major shipment of wheat, a quick reminder of what is at stake – an $8 billion US wheat export business.

Many fear the wheat most likely has been mixed in with conventional wheat for some time, but there are no valid commercial tests to verify whether wheat contains the biotech Roundup Ready gene.

“A lot of people are on high alert now,” said Mike Flowers, a cereal specialist at Oregon State University.

“We can’t really say if it is or isn’t in other fields. We don’t know.”

A month has passed since US authorities first were alerted to the suspect plants in Oregon, yet it remains unclear how the strain developed. Monsanto officials said it was likely the presence of the Roundup Ready genetic trait in wheat supplies was “very limited”. The company is conducting “a rigorous investigation” to find out how much, if any, wheat has been contaminated by their biotech variety. US regulators are also investigating.

Unnamed farmer
Bob Zemetra, one of the Oregon State University wheat researchers who first tested the mystery wheat when an unnamed farmer mailed a plant sample, said there is no easy way to explain the sudden appearance of the strain years after field tests ended.

Cross-pollination seems unlikely, Mr Zemetra said, because the field where the plants were discovered was growing winter wheat, while Monsanto had field-tested spring wheat.

There hadn’t been any test sites in the area since at least 2004, making it unlikely the new genetic strain would have been carried on the wind.

“I don’t know that we are ever going to get a straight answer, or a satisfactory answer, on how it got there,” Mr Zemetra said.

Developers of biotech crops say testing shows they are safe for humans, animals and the environment, and farmers like Roundup Ready corn, soybeans and other crops because genetic alterations enable them to survive dousings of the herbicide.

But critics of the so-called “Franken foods” point to scientific studies that claim links to health problems, while raising other environmental concerns connected to biotech crops that require close scrutiny. – (Reuters)