Monsanto Co., the world’s largest seed company, said experimental wheat engineered to survive Roundup weedkiller may have gotten into an Oregon field through an “accidental or purposeful” act.
Monsanto and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are investigating how genetically modified wheat that hasn’t been approved for commercial planting was found growing on an Oregon farm eight years after nationwide field tests ended.
Monsanto’s genetic analyses found the variety hasn’t contaminated the types of seed planted on the Oregon farm or the wheat seed typically grown in Oregon and Washington state, Chief Technology Officer Robb Fraley said today on a call with reporters. The unapproved wheat was found growing on less than 1 percent of the farmer’s 125-acre (51-hectare) field, Fraley said.
“It seems likely to be a random, isolated occurrence more consistent with the accidental or purposeful mixing of a small amount of seed during the planting, harvesting or during the fallow cycle in an individual field,” Fraley said on the call.
Asked whether the St. Louis-based company is suggesting the incident could be an act of sabotage, Fraley said, “That is certainly one of the options we are looking at.”
Fraley said he doesn’t mean to suggest the farmer who made the discovery is responsible.
Monsanto fell 3.1 percent to $98.90 at the close in New York. The shares have increased 4.5 percent this year.
Fraley said today about 1,200 genetic tests show the two seed varieties planted on the Oregon farm aren’t contaminated with wheat modified to tolerate Roundup weedkiller, known as Roundup Ready wheat. Tests of 30,000 seeds from 50 varieties of white wheat sold in Oregon and Washington also showed no contamination, he said.
Following the USDA’s May 29 announcement of the discovery in Oregon, both Japan and South Korea suspended some U.S. wheat purchases, and a Kansas farmer claimed yesterday in a federal lawsuit that Monsanto damaged the market for his crop.
Roundup Ready wheat hasn’t been detected in tests of U.S. wheat imported by Japan, South Korea and the European Union, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said yesterday. Monsanto’s $13.5 billion of annual sales are anchored in corn and other crops genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup, the world’s best-selling herbicide.
Opponents of genetically modified crops held protests against Monsanto last month as they push for state and federal bills that would require foods containing engineered ingredients to be labeled, citing food-safety and environmental concerns. The National Research Council and other scientific groups have said crops with added genes are no more risky than those developed with conventional methods.
Some Monsanto opponents may have planted seeds they illegally saved from a field trial to cause trade disruptions and build opposition to gene-altered food, said Val Giddings, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit think tank. Field trials of modified crops are often destroyed by activists in Europe, he said.
“What we are starting to do is knock down all the competing possibilities, and one of those that remain standing, the sore thumb sticking up, involves something deliberate,” Giddings, who helped regulate engineered crops at the USDA for eight years in the 1990s, said today by phone. “It’s a really ugly hypothesis because you don’t like to think people can do something that evil and malicious.”
Fraley ruled out the possibility that Roundup Ready wheat migrated from field trials to the Oregon field. Monsanto ended the trials nationwide in 2005 and in Oregon more than 12 years ago. The seed would remain viable in the Oregon soil for no more than two years, and wheat pollen remains viable for one second, with 99 percent of pollen traveling no more than 30 feet (9.1 meters), he said.
False positives for Roundup Ready wheat are common in genetic testing unless investigators use a Monsanto-designed test that distinguishes the experimental wheat variety from residue that can be left by other Roundup Ready crops such as corn and soybeans, Fraley said.
“We would like very much to analyze those samples,” he said.
Monsanto has provided its test to investigators at the USDA and U.S. trading partners such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan, he said.
USDA’s first tests “could have provided false positives,” so the agency has done “far more extensive tests” and consulted with Monsanto “to eliminate and reduce the risk of false positives,” Vilsack told reporters today after a speech at the National Press Club in Washington.
“Sophisticated testing is required,” Fraley said. “Our tests demonstrate that the varieties in question and other commercial seeds are clean of the event.”
Monsanto hasn’t yet gotten the USDA to share its testing data and procedures, Fraley said. Getting a sample of the plant’s genetic material from the USDA, Oregon State University, which conducted the genetic tests, or the farmer, would enable Monsanto to “fingerprint the exact variety being implicated here,” Fraley said.