Discovery of Unapproved GE Wheat Underscores Poor Control over Field Trials


Dear friends and colleagues, 

Re: Discovery of Unapproved GE Wheat Underscores Poor Control over Field Trials

In the wake of the announcement by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) on 29 May 2013 that unapproved genetically engineered (GE) glyphosate-resistant wheat plants (developed by Monsanto) were found in a farm in Oregon, there has been a growing demand for answers on how this could have happened and strong critique on the (in)adequacy of control over field trials of GE crops.  

There have been 22 documented cases of unauthorized releases of GE varieties e.g. of corn and rice over the past two decades, according to a study by the University of California, Riverside, USA. What makes this most recent incident especially alarming is that unlike GE corn and soy, GE wheat hasn’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. 

In this particular case, Monsanto was authorized to field test its GE wheat in 16 states from 1998 to 2005. The company claims that it followed rigorous procedures in closing the project such as forcing researchers to burn or ship back leftover seeds. Obviously, this wasn’t enough. 

Field trials are environmental releases of engineered transgenes and should be regulated stringently as such. But are they? The USDA recorded 712 violations of its regulations from 2003-2007, including 98 that could lead to a possible release of unauthorized crops, and 21 major non-compliances from 1995-2011, five of which involved Monsanto.  

A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2008 concluded that the USDA lacked the resources to conduct routine testing on areas adjacent to the GE crops to monitor any escape of the transgenes and instead relied on biotechnology companies to voluntarily provide test results.

The U.S. has some 1,000 field trials for new GE crops every year, most in multiple sites. The protocols for containing those genes are lax, argue critics. “I would not be at all surprised if there are a number of experimental genes that have contaminated and are happily being passed along at low levels in the food supplies of various crops already, but nobody’s testing,” says Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. “It’s really a ‘don’t look, don’t tell’ situation. We just really don’t know”. 

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Item 1

U.S. discovery of rogue GMO wheat raises concerns over controls
Carey Gillam & Julie Ingwersen

31 May 2013

(Reuters) – For global consumers now on high alert over a rogue strain of genetically modified wheat found in Oregon, the question is simple: How could this happen? For a cadre of critics of biotech crops, the question is different: How could it not?

The questions arose after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday that it was investigating the mysterious appearance of experimental, unapproved genetically engineered wheat plants on a farm in Oregon. The wheat was developed years ago by Monsanto Co to tolerate its Roundup herbicide, but the world‚s largest seed company scrapped the project and ended all field trials in 2004.

The incident 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 U.S. 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.

The discovery instantly roiled export markets, with Japan canceling a major shipment of wheat, a quick reminder of what is at stake – an $8 billion U.S. 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 U.S. authorities first were alerted to the suspect plants in Oregon, yet it remains unclear how the strain developed. Monsanto officials said it is likely the presence of the Roundup Ready genetic trait in wheat supplies is “very limited.” The company is conducting “a rigorous investigation” to find out how much, if any, wheat has been contaminated by their biotech variety. U.S. regulators are also investigating.

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, 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,” Zemetra said.


Government records show Monsanto conducted at least 279 field tests of herbicide-resistant wheat on over 4,000 acres in at least 16 states from 1994 until the company abandoned its field testing of wheat in 2004.

Zemetra participated in Monsanto wheat trials a decade ago, while working as a wheat breeder at the University of Idaho. When Monsanto decided to halt the testing, he said, the company had strict rules about handling test materials.

“Pretty much all that seed, and any program that was using it, either buried it, burned it or shipped it back to Monsanto, as part of the instructions for doing the field testing,” he said. “It was a very rigorous testing protocol.”

Researchers were requested to watch the plots for “volunteer” growth for at least two years after conclusion of the tests, Zemetra added.

Zemetra first became aware of the wheat found in Oregon when a farmer brought in what he described as several isolated wheat plants that had emerged after he sprayed Roundup on a fallow field in eastern Oregon. The farmer had last harvested a crop of white winter wheat from the field in 2012.

A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2008 highlighted several gaps in regulations designed to prevent genetically altered crops from escaping test plots.

The report‚s conclusions were based on USDA data that there were 712 violations of its regulations from 2003 to 2007, including 98 that could lead to a possible release of unauthorized crops.

The GAO study said the USDA lacked the resources to conduct routine testing on areas adjacent to the GMO crops. Instead, the report found, the government relied on biotechnology companies to voluntarily provide test results.

A 2005 report by the Office of Inspector General for the USDA was critical of government oversight of field tests of GMO crops. The report said there was a risk “that regulated genetically engineered organisms… will inadvertently persist in the environment before they are deemed safe to grow without regulation.”

While the reports noted problems with government oversight, USDA itself lists 21 “major incidents of noncompliance” from 1995 through 2011. Five of those involved Monsanto and included a failure by the company to properly monitor test fields, a failure to follow certain test planting protocols and a failure to properly notify regulators about test activities.


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.

Many international buyers will not accept genetically modified grain, and several U.S. food companies also reject GMOs. When Monsanto in 2004 shelved its Roundup Ready wheat research, the move came amid a backlash from foreign buyers who said they would reject U.S. wheat if DNA-altered wheat was commercialized.

Still, Alan Tracy, president of U.S. Wheat Associates, said despite the contamination problem, the wheat industry was supportive of continued research into biotech traits for wheat.

Farmers are planting less wheat and more of other crops that have been genetically altered in ways that can help farmers grow more grain, Tracy said.

“Our industry remains strongly supportive of continued research and development of biotech traits for wheat,” he said.

But finding ways for conventional grain and biotech grain to co-exist will continue to fall short if regulators don’t force crop developers to contain their products, critics said.

“This whole idea of co-existence – that has been the No. 1 theme at USDA. But you can’t have co-existence when you can’t control contamination,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at the Center for Food Safety, which has sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture to try to force tighter regulation of genetically modified crops.

In the meantime, the search is on for the source of the mystery wheat.

Jim Shroyer, a wheat agronomy expert at Kansas State University, said it was likely the Roundup Ready wheat has grown for years in eastern Oregon only to be discovered recently.

“Probably what happened is it got mixed in with a farmer‚s field eight years ago and has been there ever since,” Shroyer said. “That is the main reason we here in the top wheat state did not want Roundup Ready. You can’t get rid of it.”

(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City and Julie Ingwersen in Chicago; Writing by David Greising; Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)


Item 2

Escaped Wheat Shows Difficulty Of Keeping Test Crops On The Farm
Bloomberg, by Mark Drajem
31 May 2013

As it established test plots for its genetically modified wheat, Monsanto Co. imposed tight rules, such as forcing researchers to burn or ship back leftover seeds. It wasn’t enough.

Almost a decade after Monsanto abandoned plans to sell a herbicide-resistant wheat variety, plants with that genetic makeup were found in an Oregon farm field, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said this week. Inspectors are trying to determine how the strain turned up years later and how widely it may have spread. Development tests were allowed in 16 states.

Scientists warn that such incidents are likely to persist, given weak federal rules and the strength of natural selection.

“Controlling seed movement is really a big challenge,” said Cynthia Sagers, a professor at the University of Arkansas who researches plant evolutionary ecology. “If anyone were looking, they would find this in many other areas as well.”

For the world‚s largest seedmaker, targeted by March Against Monsanto global protests this week over genetically modified foods, the biggest risks are likely to be from farmers confronting export restrictions and from super-weeds made herbicide-resistant by the genetic manipulations meant to help crops survive, researchers say. The USDA, Monsanto and scientists say that human health isn‚t a high risk in this case.

Resistant Weeds

“The real problem will be how agriculture deals with these resistant weeds that we‚ve created, signed, sealed and delivered,” Sagers said in an in interview. “This is going to be more of what we hear about until USDA takes a harder look at genetically modified crops, and GM escape.”

An Oregon farmer tried to kill wheat using Monsanto‚s Roundup herbicide and found that several plants survived, the USDA said May 29. St. Louis-based Monsanto had withdrawn an application for approval of the strain nine years ago amid concern that buyers would avoid crops from the U.S., the world’s biggest wheat exporter.

The farmer‚s discovery prompted Japan to suspend imports of western-white wheat and feed wheat. Prices of the grain fell on the Chicago Board of Trade, headed for the biggest monthly drop since February, after the suspension.

Monsanto said the Oregon discovery is isolated and shouldn’t concern consumers or trading partners. The USDA said government tests showed the experimental strain was as safe as grain on the market.

First Incident

The Oregon field was the first in which the genetically modified wheat was found out of place, the company said. The strain was bred to resist glyphosate, the key ingredient of Roundup. Plants so bred permit farmers to kill weeds without endangering crops. Monsanto sells these seeds as Roundup Ready.

All field trials of genetically modified strains are approved by the U.S. regulator before planting and test crops comply with government requirements, Lee Quarles, a company spokesman, said by e-mail.

“Monsanto was very thorough to make sure we followed protocols,” said Robert Zemetra, who teaches wheat genetics at Oregon State University and conducted one of the Monsanto field trials while at University of Idaho.

Unauthorized releases of transgenic products such as corn and rice have been plentiful, with 22 documented cases over the past two decades, according to a study by Norman Ellstrand of the University of California, Riverside.

The 2000 release of Aventis SA (SAN)‚s StarLink corn cost as much as $288 million in lost revenue and a yearlong drop in the grain‚s price, the U.S. General Accountability Office said in a 2008 report. The 2006 release of Bayer AG (BAYN)‚s Liberty Link rice led to a $750 million settlement in 2011 with about 11,000 U.S. farmers.

Escaped Canola

A genetically altered strain of canola is still being plucked from rail yards near Japanese ports by anxious local volunteers, years after the plants, of unknown origin, were discovered in the country.

Also in eastern Oregon, genetically modified creeping bentgrass pollen was found 13 miles from fields where it was being tested, many times the mandated isolation distance, according to a 2004 Environmental Protection Agency study. Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. agreed to a settlement with the USDA and a fine of $500,000 over the handling of those field trials.

“It was a spectacular story of gene flow,” Ellstrand said in an interview. “Nobody had ever tested at that distance.”

In the case in Oregon revealed this week, Zemetra said it‚s not clear exactly how the wheat got into the field. It‚s unlikely the seeds stayed dormant in the ground for years, and then finally germinated. More likely is that it got mixed — to a small volume — into the seed supply, Ellstrand said.

Environmental Worries

“Somebody has been breeding this wheat, inadvertently for a number of years, whether a seed company or this farmer,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Researchers are divided about the risks of the releases. Few of those documented have led to widespread environmental damage.

“I don’t see any potential for negative consequences,” Val Giddings, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said in an interview. “If there is any problem here at all, as far as I can see, it would be a paperwork regulatory compliance issue. It could be as simple as a single grain of wheat not having been properly disposed of.”

Other scientists say risks remain: A wheat plant may pollinate a weed, such as goatgrass, leading to a Roundup resistant variety, said Gurian-Sherman.

Increased Infestation

Because of natural selection, that strain may thrive, leaving farmers with weeds that are harder to control and the need for other, more expensive herbicides, he said.

“The main issues here are environmental,” Gurian-Sherman, who published a paper on the issue, said in an interview. His group is pressing the USDA to strengthen rules meant to segregate genetically modified crops from other strains or wild relatives. The agency isn‚t poised for that, based on this case.

“While we take this situation very seriously, it is too early in the investigation to draw any definitive conclusions,” Ed Curlett, a USDA plant-inspection service spokesman, said by e-mail, responding to calls for changes in test rules. “We will continue to work on all aspects of the investigation.”

Item 3

Genetically modified wheat isn’t supposed to exist. So what is it doing in Oregon?

By Justin Bachman, May 30, 2013

Business Week 

Wheat farmers, advocates of food safety, and pretty much anyone who eats bread or noodles have turned their attention to Oregon, where a wheat farmer found a genetically engineered strain of wheat in his otherwise unmodified crop. He couldn’t kill it in any of the normal ways, so he sent it to the lab for testing, which sounds like the set-up for a farm-belt horror movie. The reality has caused alarm of a different sort: Genetically modified wheat hasn’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and unlike corn and soy and other so-called GMO foods, there isn’t supposed to be any genetically modified wheat in the U.S. food supply at all.

There are two reasons to care. Food safety folks lobby hard for labeling of genetically modified foods, saying that the jury is out on the long-term health and environmental effects and consumers deserve to know what they’re buying. The companies that make the seeds say they‚re perfectly safe. And for wheat farmers and exporters, this potentially cripples the export market: Many foreign buyers don’t want genetically modified wheat and can switch their buying to Russia, Ukraine, Australia, and other large exporters. Japan reacted quickly, canceling an order today for nearly 25,000 tons of wheat, Bloomberg News reported, and wheat futures dropped on the Chicago Board of Trade.

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is responsible for keeping unapproved GMOs out of the food supply, has begun testing the wheat. In a full-court PR press, the agency has also released a Q&A and video to address the issue. Here are a few points to consider:

It’s probably too late to do much about this.

The U.S. has some 1,000 field trials for new gene-altered crops each year, most in multiple sites. The protocols for containing those genes are lax, argue such critics as the Center for Food Safety, which wants a moratorium on field testing of gene-altered crops. “I would not be at all surprised if there are a number of experimental genes that have contaminated and are happily being passed along at low levels in the food supplies of various crops already, but nobody’s testing,” says Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. “It’s really a ‘don’t look, don’t tell’ situation. We just really don’t know.”

After all, this isn’t the first time.

In 2000, a strain of corn called StarLink, engineered by Aventis to kill caterpillars, was found in taco shells. In 2006, Bayer’s LibertyLink experimental rice made its way into the food supply, leading to lost exports. In 2012, the German company agreed to pay $750 million to settle claims from 11,000 U.S. farmers in five states. Restoring genetic purity to a crop is a very expensive process and takes time.

Is there a public safety issue?

That’s a matter of debate. Regulators were quick to jump on the Oregon discovery with a battery of tests and extensive investigations that are under way now. Monsanto designed the Roundup Ready wheat to withstand its Roundup herbicide used to keep fields free of pests, and the gene isn‚t considered harmful. “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed the food and feed safety of Roundup Ready wheat more than a decade ago,” Monsanto said in a May 29 statement.

Critics of gene-altered food argue that the periodic crop discoveries highlight a regulatory system that is woefully inadequate to monitor the expansion of modified crops and to detect any dangerous genes that could materialize. “The question is why APHIS does not tighten its procedures for field trials. It‚s incredibly lax, whatever APHIS may try to say,” says Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety.

Does the rogue wheat have any Sarah Palin connection?




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