WASHINGTON, June 21, 2013- Monsanto officials said today that evidence in the investigation of genetically engineered wheat plants found in an Oregon field last month suggests an intentional contamination.
“This is a pattern you would expect if someone had entered the field and sewn seeds mechanically or by hand when the field was not being farmed,” said Monsanto’s chief technology officer, Robb Fraley, in a teleconference today.
USDA announced on May 29 an investigation of wheat plants that survived applications of glysophate by an Oregon farmer. The farmer sent the surviving wheat plants he found as “volunteers” in his field to Oregon State University, which confirmed the glysophate-tolerant trait and notified USDA on May 3.
“We continue to believe that this farmer is a victim in this situation and we respect his decision to remain anonymous,” Fraley said today.
According to information from USDA’s investigation and the lawyer of the Oregon farmer, Fraley said the volunteer wheat appeared in “patches or clumps” and “appeared here and there in the field.” However, he said farmers distribute wheat uniformly throughout a field, so if the farmer’s seed supply is contaminated, the offending plants would appear in a uniform fashion.
Wheat volunteer plants from a previous crop typically occur throughout the field, he noted today.
“None of standard farming practices are consistent with, or can explain, a smattering in only one percent of a field or in patches or clumps,” he said. “In our view the finding is suspicious.”
Fraley said Monsanto’s analyses conclude that neither the seed varieties the farmer used nor the grain harvested from his fields contained the genetically engineered trait.
Michael Firko, Acting Deputy Administrator of APHIS Biotechnology Regulatory Services, announced in a briefing last month that USDA scientists verified the discovered plants are the same variety as genetically engineered wheat field-tested by Monsanto.
APHIS authorized more than 100 field tests with the glyphosate-resistant wheat trait from 1998 through 2005 in several states. The last approved field trial of Roundup Ready wheat in Oregon was in 2001, according to Monsanto.
“The unfortunate reality is that this is an extremely rare incident that should be investigated,” Fraley said. “The CP4 event appearing suddenly after 12 years, out of nowhere, in a single field, in the state of Oregon, is highly suspicious.”
The CP4 gene that causes the CP4 event in wheat is the same gene that appears in Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn, soybean, sugar beets and canola. USDA announced it validated an event-specific test for CP4 in wheat that Monsanto provided. Fraley noted Japan, South Korea and the European Union are in the process of validating the same testing method for use in grain shipments.
No genetically engineered strain of wheat is approved for the U.S. or global markets. Trading partners Japan and South Korea placed suspensions of U.S. soft white wheat imports from the Northwest region and other partners are enforcing heavier testing standards of U.S. wheat imports.
Although he noted that Monsanto does not have access to the field or know the identity of the Oregon farmer, Fraley said tests performed by Monsanto, USDA and Washington State University cover 97 percent of the commercial seed stock in the region and confirm that all stocks are clean of the glysophate-resistant trait.
Fraley insisted “this situation is extremely isolated.” He emphasized facts in the investigation point to an instance of intentional contamination rather than overall supply contamination.
“If someone has the criminal intent and wants to break into a field, it doesn’t matter if it’s sugar beets or wheat,” Fraley said. “If someone is prepared to break the law and enter a field to destroy plants it’s also possible they would have entered a field to collect plants.”
The Oregon farmer planted two varieties of soft white wheat, while Monsanto’s field trials contained mostly hard red wheat. USDA has possession of the plant samples discovered last month and has yet to release the variety of the genetically engineered wheat found in Oregon.
Company representatives insist that Monsanto followed all security procedures to have Roundup Ready wheat transported and secured in company and USDA facilities when field trials ended several years ago.
Fraley said wheat seed remains viable for one or two years in the soil, but could last several years in cold storage on a shelf.
“We don’t know how this happened,” he said. “That’s why it’s so curious.”
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