This is the second of a two-part series.
U.S. Department of Agriculture investigators are continuing to canvass the Northwest, in an effort to figure out how unauthorized, genetically modified wheat made it into Oregon.
This week the Capital Press reported inspectors have taken seeds from a distributor in Walla Walla, Wash. The general manager of Northwest Grain Growers told the newspaper that investigators took samples of two varieties of wheat, both of which were planted in an Eastern Oregon field. Fifteen USDA inspectors are still investigating the unauthorized GM crop.
The Agriculture Department says it has no indications that genetically modified wheat found in Oregon last month has spread beyond the field in which it was found.
No genetically engineered wheat has been approved for U.S. farming, and the department is investigating how the engineered wheat got in the field. It is the same strain that was legally tested by seed giant Monsanto a decade ago but never approved.
USDA spokesman Matt Paul said in a statement Friday that the department has no evidence “that this incident amounts to more than a single isolated incident in a single field on a single farm.”
Japan, Korea and Taiwan have suspended imports of western white wheat from the Pacific Northwest as the USDA investigates. —Associated Press, June 14.
So, how did the genetically modified wheat make it to the Northwest? Monsanto tested the herbicide-resistant crop in 16 states, including Oregon and Washington. It closed the program in 2005.
What Do We Know?
For the second week in a row, Japan continued its suspention of winter white wheat exports from the Pacific Northwest. This comes after unapproved genetically modified wheat was found growing in an Oregon farmer’s field.
In an e-mail, USDA spokesman Ed Curlett said inspectors do not think GM wheat has reached the market. He said investigators have not come to any conclusions about genetically modified wheat’s origins.
Researchers say we may never know what happened. No one has discovered exactly how GM strains of rice ended up in farmers’ fields in 2006. The company involved paid farmers $750 million in damages.
Scientists around the Pacific Northwest have a few theories as to how GM wheat wound up in Oregon.
Let’s Dig A Little Deeper
Bob Zemetra, a wheat geneticist at Oregon State University, offers up two theories: wheat pollen and seeds.
So how likely is it that wheat pollen that originated in a test field of genetically modified wheat could have led to the plants growing in the Eastern Oregon field? The pollen would have had to blow a great distance, much farther than anyone thought it could. Researchers say this is highly unlikely because wheat pollinates itself.
Carol Mallory-Smith is with Oregon State University. She says wheat pollen usually travels only a few feet.
In most of the Monsanto tests, Zemetra says, “you left a pretty wide distance between where the trail was being conducted and any type of spring or winter wheat.”
Further complicating the pollen theory is the fact that the Oregon farmer had planted winter wheat, but Monsanto tests were conducted on spring wheat. These two types of wheat do not normally flower at the same time, Zemetra says. That makes cross-pollination extremely unlikely.
So It’s The Seeds Theory, Then?
Genetically modified seeds could have somehow mixed in with non-genetically modified seeds.
The unauthorized genetically modified wheat sprouted up in several random spots across the Oregon field. Only about 1 percent of the field contained the genetically modified crop. That pattern suggests seeds, Zemetra says.
Investigators looking at seed in Walla Walla, as stated in the Capital Press article, gives further credence to this theory.
In a news conference last week, Monsanto spokesman Robb Fraley said the company believes this is an isolated incident.
“It seems to be a random isolated occurrence, more consistent with the accidental or purposeful mixing of a small amount of seed during the planting, harvesting and during the follow cycle in an individual field,” Fraley said during the conference.
Monsanto says it has tested its seed stock and has not found any contaminated wheat varieties.
Zemetra says if wheat seed is kept dry, it can last a long time. That means, he says, somehow the genetically modified seeds could have been mixed in with regular wheat seeds.
Will We Ever Know the Whole Story?
Researchers can test wheat varieties to figure out where the seeds may have come from.
“You can, in a sense, like you’ve seen on those CSI shows, do ‘fingerprinting’ but in a little more detail,” Zemetra says. “The idea is: Let’s fingerprint the varieties that we knew (the genetic modification) was in, and ‘fingerprint’ the unknown varieties.”
Researchers could then trace this information back to the source. But that is a pretty big “could,” Zemetra says.
“One of the potential frustrations is that we may not actually know exactly how it happened,” Zemetra says. “Trying to figure out if it is potentially a very small, low-level contaminate, and it’s isolated into one field… How could it end up in just one field?”
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