Drive across America’s farm country -- across the vast plains of Kansas, across the prairies of North Dakota, and then out onto the parched, treeless expanse of the inland Northwest -- and the waves of grain can seem endless.
About 60 million acres of the U.S. are planted in wheat. That’s an area larger than Utah, and it’s the core of an $18 billion industry that’s as old as the nation -- older, in fact. The settlers at Jamestown cultivated wheat. George Washington was a major wheat grower as were tens of thousands of small-time 19th century dreamers who pushed their way west over the Appalachian Mountains to plant wheat in the green valleys of Ohio, Illinois, and later Minnesota.
In the American mind, wheat is linked to decency and hard work. Just look at the iconic 1938 painting by Thomas Hart Benton, Cradling Wheat. Here are five farmers coming together in a tawny field at harvest, scything the grain and bundling it into tidy sheaves. The farmers’ faces are hidden by their floppy straw hats; the heave of their backs is musical, in sync with the heave of the hills rolling behind them. These people are humble, good.
Even in recent decades, as agriculture has become agribusiness, wheat has remained far more innocent than its main rival, corn. Nearly all corn grown in the U.S. today is genetically modified; no genetically modified wheat has ever been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If wheat has never been particularly sexy -- the Jimmy Stewart of American commerce -- it’s also never been the subject of dark intrigue and mystery. Until last month.
On May 29 the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced that a strain of genetically modified wheat had been discovered in an Oregon field. A farmer had been spraying a weedkiller, Roundup, on a few “volunteer” soft white wheat plants that had sprouted, weedlike, in a 125-acre field he was trying to leave fallow. Curiously, the wheat didn’t die. The farmer sent it to a laboratory at Oregon State University, and the lab determined it was Roundup Ready wheat. The USDA later confirmed that it was MON 71800, a strain of wheat created by Monsanto, the $14 billion agricultural giant based in St. Louis, Missouri, From 1998 to 2005, the company had been authorized to field-test in 16 states, including Oregon. Monsanto had engineered 71800 to be resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, which it also manufactures. It had conceived the seed as a companion product to the herbicide. But it discontinued 71800, the company says, to focus on corn, cotton, and oilseeds.
No one could say where the 71800 came from, but it appeared to have migrated from one of Monsanto’s test plots. But how? And were there other farm fields pocked by GMO wheat? Had seeds of 71800 taken a ride on a container ship across the Pacific?
At stake is the $8 billion wheat export business, and in particular U.S. wheat trade with Asia -- and the welfare of more than 160,000 American farms. Soft white wheat is only a fraction of the total market (about 15 percent), but the incident raised questions about the integrity and safety of U.S. agricultural products. In its May 29 press release, the USDA revealed that the top buyer of American wheat, Japan, had suspended import tenders for western white wheat. South Korea planned to test all U.S. wheat and wheat flour upon arrival.
Determining the extent of the rogue crop was clearly an urgent matter, but also one the USDA and Monsanto decided should be handled out of the public eye. The government has kept the location of the field secret, even in discussions with Oregon State scientists. Monsanto refuses to disclose the locations of its former 71800 test sites, and the farmer himself has elected to remain anonymous.
As the story broke, a few clues trickled out. The contaminated farm field was in eastern Oregon. The 71800 covered only about 1 percent of the plot, in scattered patches. The USDA had tested other fields owned by the same farmer and hadn’t found any more 71800. In the New York Times, Michael Firko, acting deputy administrator in charge of biotechnology at APHIS, attained a terseness worthy of Elmore Leonard. “We’re all over this,” Firko said. “We have nine investigators combing the area.” When I asked Andre Bell, a spokesman for APHIS, to elaborate, he said: “At this time, all I can say is that they are gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses.”
“Witnesses?” I had never heard that word used in relation to wheat. “You mean farmers? Field hands?”
“At this time,” Bell repeated, “all I can say is ‘witnesses.’ ”
I live in western Oregon -- in the People’s Republic of Portland, where Monsanto is a dirty word and where it soon became impossible to avoid speculation about what was happening on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. Where, exactly, was this demon wheat? Why the secrecy? And these investigators -- what were they doing? I called a friend who used to work for the USDA and asked if he knew where the agents might be. He answered, “They’re probably driving around in rental cars, looking at plants.” The investigators were likely in Umatilla County. Situated on the fertile Columbia River Plateau and bathed in almost unceasing sunshine, Umatilla is, almost by a factor of three, Oregon’s principal wheat-growing county. “There should be some [government] vehicles there, too,” my friend said, adding helpfully, “Look for blue-and-white license plates.”
When I reach Pendleton, the biggest town in Umatilla County, about 200 miles due east of Portland on I-84, night has fallen. I climb the hill to the Red Lion Hotel and there, in the darkened parking lot, I find a forest-green Ford Explorer with a government plate marked “GG2” -- possibly an abbreviation for GrainGenes 2.0, a USDA program that provides farmers technical data on myriad strains of oats, wheat, barley, and rye. Early the next morning, I buy a couple of doughnuts and stake out the vehicle. At 9:15 a.m. the driver appears. I follow him as he leaves the lot.
In the fields and on the airwaves around Pendleton, wheat farmers worry, as they often do, about money. Theirs is an inherently risky enterprise with a thin profit margin. An average wheat farmer in the Pendleton area, according to Bart Eleveld, an agricultural economist at Oregon State University, tends about 1,000 acres.
He harvests about 60 bushels per acre, at a cost of roughly $6.60 per bushel. (Tractor fuel is the biggest wallet killer.) In 2012 a bushel of soft white wheat sold for about $8.10, leaving a typical farmer with roughly $90,000 to cover private health insurance, his IRA contributions, and the principal on his land loan, among other things. If the price of a bushel fluctuates, that $90,000 can vanish to zero. And given the global nature of wheat, economic threats can seemingly emerge out of the blue. Rain in Australia, for example, is bad news for American farmers.
Despite the halted shipments to Japan, experts remain divided as to how much effect the incident will have long term. Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University, says not that much: “I’d expect a drop of 10¢ to 15¢ a bushel for a little while as exporters start testing wheat for its genetic traits. The supply chain’s going to slow down a bit.”
Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State, questions the reassurances from both Monsanto and the USDA that 71800 wheat is safe for human consumption.
“We don’t know that,” he says. “Years ago, when CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] were first released, scientists thought they were the safest thing in the world. Nobody ever thought they were going to blow a hole in the ozone. We don’t know what the long-term health effects of GMO foods will be -- nature and life are very complicated. And if we find that GMO wheat is linked to health problems, that could have a profound effect on markets.”
“Everyone’s quite concerned,” says Mike Thorne, a Pendleton wheat farmer and a retired state legislator. When the news broke, “I went to the co-op [a farm supply store] and everyone was asking, ‘How did it happen? And can the GM wheat be contained?’ They’re looking for a needle in a haystack -- a few kernels of GM wheat amid millions and millions of bushels.”
It doesn’t take long to determine that the guy in the Ford Explorer isn’t looking for a needle; he’s looking for breakfast. I leave him at Denny’s and drive to Dave’s Chevron, a downtown Pendleton convenience store and gas station where locals gather in the morning to share coffee at a few plastic tables.
Road builder Cliff Greene sees the rogue wheat as bad karma. “Why did this happen?” he begins. “Because wheat farmers vote the wrong way. The president says he’s got his enemies, and we’re it! Those seeds were planted there by the government!” Later, wheat farmer Tony Kech says, “It’s not like that GM stuff just blew in from somewhere. It was put there by some idiot. One of those protesters from Portland was traveling the freeway, and he just tossed some seed out the window.”
Kech’s theory isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Portland is such a hotbed of unruly dissent that in the early nineties staffers for the first President Bush nicknamed the town “Little Beirut.” Craig Rosebraugh, author of The Logic of Political Violence and onetime spokesperson for the Earth Liberation Front, is from Portland; last month about 2,500 protesters gathered in a Portland park to protest genetically modified agriculture. One woman bore a large American flag magic-markered to read, “United States of Monsanto, by Monsanto, for Monsanto.”
And on June 5, Monsanto itself raised the specter of sabotage. In a conference call with reporters, the company’s chief technology officer, Robb Fraley, said the 71800 incident may have resulted from “a purposeful mixing of seeds. We’re considering all options.”
Could a saboteur have breached Monsanto’s headquarters? Monsanto publicist Thomas Helscher refuses to speculate, even as he e-mails to say, “We have a very small number of  seeds archived in secure storage.” Helscher goes on to describe the “cool and low humidity” of Monsanto’s seed library, but the key word of our correspondence is not “archived” but “isolated.” Three separate times Helscher types this exact, confusing phrase to describe the Oregon incident: “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.”
Helscher points me to an online video that shows Monsanto’s Fraley, a bald man casually dressed in a red polo shirt, relaying a carefully nuanced message from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “The agency has reported that it has no evidence at this time that the original Roundup Ready CP-4 event [that is, the 71800 wheat] has entered commerce.”
Fraley’s remarks reflect a willful optimism: On numerous occasions GMO strains unapproved by the FDA have found their way onto consumers’ dinner plates. In 2000, Taco Bell incurred a public-relations nightmare after the infamous “StarLink incident,” in which genetically modified “StarLink corn,” patented by Aventis CropScience and approved only for animal use, commingled with human-grade corn—and showed up in supermarkets in Taco Bell taco shells. Taco Bell alleged that its franchisees lost revenue because of “marketplace confusion.”
It recalled the shells and later, in a settlement, collected $60 million from its shell providers (who, per the terms of the agreement, were not named). In 2001, APHIS fined Monsanto after the company let an insect-resistant strain of GMO corn cross-pollinate with other corn, and in 2010, Colorado-based Ventria Bioscience was fined by APHIS for selling a storage bin in which it had stowed GMO pharmaceutical rice. “Once you introduce a gene into the environment, it’s likely to stay there,” says Oregon State weed science professor Carol Mallory-Smith. “You can’t just retract it.”
By the third morning of my search, the USDA has fortified its investigative team, adding six gumshoes to the original nine. (The newcomers’ mission, says spokesman Bell, is “to investigate how the situation occurred and collect additional samples from the Oregon farm.") Meanwhile, a farmer in Kansas, Ernest Barnes, has filed suit against Monsanto. Barnes alleges that by allowing GMO wheat to spread, Monsanto exercised ‘‘gross negligence,’’ thereby driving down wheat prices.
His attorney, Warren Burns, says, ‘‘We’re talking about potential claims in the hundreds of millions of dollars.’’ At least two similar suits have emerged, and in Idaho, a group of wheat growers is seeking class action status to represent fellow farmers in Oregon, Washington, and other states. In response, Monsanto Executive Vice President David Snively derided the rise of ‘‘tractor-chasing lawyers.’’
At Dave’s Chevron, the circus is in full swing. ‘‘I heard that genetically modified wheat was in Ontario,’’ says a wheat grower named Carl Peterson. He means Ontario, Ore., population 11,000, on the Idaho border. ‘‘That’s what I heard, too -- Ontario,’’ says a farmer at a nearby table. A man in an adjacent booth, Joe McDonald, runs a seed warehouse for Pendleton Grain Growers, and he’s been in the seed business for 35 years. He, too, likes Ontario as ground zero.
‘‘I’ve never heard of any tests of Roundup Ready wheat happening around here,” he says, “and if a test like that had been going on within a 70-mile radius, I’d probably know about it.”
McDonald adds that Umatilla County doesn’t seem like a good place to grow and sell Roundup Ready wheat. Because the area is dry, getting only about 13 inches of rain a year, farmers leave their fields fallow every other year—and they fallow their fields by killing off all the plants in them, including the volunteer wheat plants, with glyphosate. “These farmers don’t want wheat that stands up to Roundup,” McDonald says. While it rains only 10 inches a year in Ontario, he adds, farmers there irrigate -- and almost never fallow -- their fields.
Ontario is 170 miles east of Pendleton on I-84 in Malheur County, and the roadside is at first empty, almost lunar. Then long, slender aluminum drip irrigators begin showing up, like giant silver insects speckling the brown land. After a plan to appeal to tipsters on Ontario’s sole radio station—KSRV, “The Bull” -- fails, I once again beat the bushes at the local gas station, where wheat and vegetable farmer Lou Wettstein sits with his coffee overlooking the pumps.
For about five years, Wettstein says, genetically modified bentgrass has been spreading, unwanted, near Ontario. Bentgrass is more inclined to proliferate than wheat, which is also a grass -- it’s a perennial while wheat is an annual. It escaped from the Parma (Idaho) test plots of Scotts Miracle-Gro, which had been working with Monsanto to develop Roundup Ready turf for golf courses.
“Now the seeds get in the irrigation canals,” says Wettstein, a retired county commissioner. “They get lodged in the wind and cross with other grasses, and pretty soon they’re everywhere, even in farmers’ fields, to some degree. It’s a real pain in the neck. It’s a heck of a mess.”
Wettstein doesn’t rail against Monsanto, though. Rather, he speaks of the company with sympathy. “You can’t paint them as the devil,” he says. “You just can’t because they’ve done so much good. When they came out with Roundup Ready beets, we welcomed it around here. You can raise a crop now and never put a person in the field.”
In cities, news of the rogue wheat may alarm the anti-GMO crowd, but in rural America, Wettstein makes clear, Monsanto is mostly viewed as a life-giving force.
Then the clerk -- “Zane,” according to his name tag -- says I have a phone call on the gas station’s line. Could this be my Deep Throat? The caller’s voice is husky, muffled. “Did you read the Capital Press?” he asks, meaning a daily Oregon ag newspaper. “Get the Capital Press from last Friday.”
I whisper to Zane, requesting the document in question; impressively, he locates it on a back shelf within seconds. The caller points me toward an indirect quote on the front page. The president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, Walter Powell, told the reporter that he thought the 71800 field was in “northeast Oregon.”
“Why are you blaming us?” the caller says to me. “This is insulting. Hell, yeah, this is insulting!”
“But isn’t this northeast Oregon here?” I ask. Geographically speaking, I’m standing in the state’s upper right quadrant.
“This is eastern Oregon,” the caller hisses. “Get your facts straight -- that wheat’s near Pendleton.” The line goes dead.
As the days pass, encouraging news comes from South Korea: In their initial 45 tests of wheat shipments from Oregon, Asian importers haven’t found a genetically modified grain. Beyond that, though, there’s little news. More theories arise, and vague leads swirl about like so much chaff in the breeze. Tom Winn, an Oregon wheat farmer and chair of the Oregon Wheat Foundation, says he heard the APHIS inspectors have taken wheat samples from a field in Heppner, 70 miles southwest of Pendleton. Winn doesn’t say whether the samples tested positive for 71800.
Meanwhile, I’m forwarded an e-mail in which Scott Bates, a spokesman for GMO Free Oregon, speculates that Monsanto probably tested its 71800 at a research station just outside Pendleton. “I confirmed my assumption with my uncle, who’s been farming wheat for 40-plus years,” Bates writes, before adding, “This is an assumption and should not be reported as fact.”
All the arrows still seem to point toward Umatilla County, so I seek out Tyson Raymond and Craig Reeder. Raymond and Reeder are past presidents of the 1,200-member Oregon Wheat League and grow wheat on farms 17 miles northeast of Pendleton, in tiny Helix. The two shepherd me into Raymond’s white Ford Super Duty pickup and, as we bump along winding dirt roads, give me a primer on fallowing wheat fields. In the old days, when Raymond’s great-grandfather farmed wheat in Helix, there was only one way to fallow -- you killed all the weeds by tilling. In the past 20 years, a new process, “chem-fallow,” emerged. Farmers are now able to kill all the weeds with glyphosate and a few other herbicides without ever touching a till.
“It’s amazing,” Reeder says. “No furrows in the soil. No topsoil washing downhill making ditches that ruin your combine.”
Eventually, we duck out of the sun into the cool refuge of Raymond’s garage and shop and discuss the farmer who reported the rogue wheat. “That guy did a courageous thing,” says Raymond. “He could’ve just plowed it under and gone about his business. It must’ve been tempting -- name anybody who wants nine federal investigators showing up in his backyard.”
“Being Erin Brockovich was glamorous after the fact,” Reeder echoes, “but it probably wasn’t easy along the way.”
“If he didn’t report it, there could have been 10 farmers hit next year, then 100 the year after that,” Raymond says. “He helped everyone out -- and we got him a lawyer.”
By “we,” Raymond means the Oregon Wheat Growers League. By now I’m thinking again of that painting by Thomas Hart Benton and of the shared joy and open-hearted cooperation that thrums between its five farmers. Oregon’s wheat farmers all but certainly want to protect their whistle-blower. “I’m guessing,” I ask, “that you guys know who this farmer is, but you’re just not telling me, right?”
Reeder and Raymond confer via their eyebrows for a second. “How do they do this at the White House?” Reeder deadpans. “Don’t they say ‘no comment’?”
“I think it’s just a dead stare,” says Raymond. He glares at me stony-eyed and then laughs. “Look,” he says, “I’ve had two different wheat farmers tell me it was someone who lived right near them—and these guys live 80 miles apart from each other...It’s not like there’s a brotherhood of wheat farmers, and we all know. Almost nobody knows. It’s very secret.”