APHIS: GE wheat in Oregon was an isolated incident
By Jennifer M. Latzke
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service June 14 announced that the incident of genetically engineered wheat found in a single field in Oregon in May is an isolated incident and there is no indication of the presence of GE wheat in commerce.
“As of today (June 14), USDA has neither found nor been informed of anything that would indicate that this incident amounts to more than a single isolated incident in a single field on a single farm,” the release read. “All information collected so far shows no indication of the presence of GE wheat in commerce.”
The investigation team is still conducting a review of the incident. According to APHIS, the team has interviewed the producer, the person who harvested the wheat from the field, and the seed supplier who sold the blended wheat seed to the farmer. The investigation has samples of the wheat seed that was sold to this producer and other growers, as well as samples of the producer’s wheat harvests—including the recent 2012 harvest. All samples of seed and grain tested negative for the presence of GE material. Investigators are also interviewing 200 area growers surrounding the field in question.
On June 21, Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer Robb Fraley hosted a conference call to update media on the company’s own investigation into the incident. Because this is an ongoing federal investigation, Monsanto is not privy to many of the details. As of yet the company still hasn’t received samples of the volunteer GE wheat plants in question or been able to verify the chain of custody of those samples. Without access to the samples, the company cannot fingerprint the variety, but Monsanto, Fraley added, is respecting USDA’s investigatory authority in the matter.
What Monsanto has been able to do, is use its research into the CP4 gene to create an event-specific test to identify the specific region of the wheat genome containing this original Roundup Ready wheat event. This region of the wheat genome is unique to that CP4 event’s use in wheat. This eliminates false-positives from exposure to other crops, according to Monsanto. On June 13, USDA and GIPSA validated this event-specific PCR (DNA-based) test for use in detecting the MON71800 or CP4 event. The USDA validation included a specificity study and a sensitivity study.
According to the USDA, it determined that the method can reliably detect the CP4 gene when present at a frequency of 1 in 200 kernels. There is no indication that the CP4 event is present in commercial seed or grain.
Monsanto has been conducting tests on the seed stock of commercially available wheat varieties in the Washington and Oregon region. The company has tested 58 varieties, with about 35,000 samples, which represent about 80 percent of the soft white wheat acres planted in the Oregon and Washington region in 2011, Fraley said. No detection of the CP4 event was present in seed stocks.
Washington State University has also been conducting screenings of public and private wheat variety seed stocks. And now more than 75 wheat varieties that represent 97 percent of the known white wheat varieties planted in Oregon in 2011 have been tested—with no detection of the CP4 event in commercial seed stocks. These tests also included nearly three-quarters of the spring wheat varieties planted in the region. WSU looked at 60 varieties, 1,900 advanced breeding lines and 20,000 individual plots as well as commercial varieties from WSU and Oregon State University and did not find the trait.
“This rules out that a breeding program is the source of contamination,” Fraley said.
USDA reported that its testing of the seed varieties that were originally planted in the 123-acre Oregon farm (ROD and WB528) as well as grain harvested from it in 2012 have tested negative for the CP4 event. USDA has reported that after rigorous testing on adjoining fields no CP4 event plants were found.
Fraley said the original Roundup Ready wheat testing program that ended 12 years ago was rigorously closed out, documented and audited. All the seed was destroyed or shipped to the Monsanto facility in St. Louis, he said, or shipped to a USDA-ARS facility in Colorado. And USDA confirmed and documented that seed shipped to its Colorado facility has been since destroyed.
Claire Cajacob, Monsanto’s wheat research lead, said field trials are audited by government agencies, and a third party audits the planting, harvesting and subsequent monitoring of the seed during and after the trial. Any movement of the seed is under double containment, she added. The amount of seed that is stored varies, but seed viability over the long term is reduced depending on how it was stored.
“When we shut down the program, we were careful and no material was left out there,” Cajacob said. Each cooperator had to confirm verbally and in writing that they had sent back seeds or had destroyed them.
“We know the farmer himself never participated in any field testing and to the grower’s knowledge the field was never used in trials,” Fraley said. “We know from our own tests of the two varieties planted by the farmer that the CP4 event wasn’t present in the seed varieties the grower planted in 2011. And USDA has confirmed that CP4 event wasn’t present in grain harvested in summer of 2012.
“Last spring, after farming the same field for nine years without any problems with uncontrolled wheat volunteers, the farmer found a smattering of volunteers in 1 percent of his wheat field that reportedly contained the CP4 gene..”
USDA tests confirm that the CP4 event wasn’t present in the two seed varieties used to plant the field, or in the grain harvested from it, he added.
“So, from here on, what happened in this field is suspicious,” Fraley said.
First, the CP4 event wasn’t detected in any of the other fields the farmer planted with the same seed blend. USDA hasn’t detected the event in samples from the seed provider or adjoining fields, Fraley added. Agronomically, this means that it is highly unlikely the event found in the volunteer wheat came from a nearby farm or field.
Fraley said Monsanto reached out to the farmer’s attorney to clarify just how the volunteers appeared in the field.
“They confirmed the appearance of the CP4 event appeared in patches or clumps and here and there in the field,” Fraley said. Anyone familiar with wheat production would expect if the event had been present in the seed that it would appear more uniformly throughout the whole field.
“No farming practices can explain a smattering of volunteers or patches or clumps of volunteers,” Fraley said. “In our view, this is the pattern you would expect if someone had dispersed the seed. If they had entered the field, and sown seed mechanically or by hand at some point in the subsequent fallow cycle when field was not being farmed.
“We continue to believe the farmer is the victim in the situation and respect his decision to remain anonymous,” Fraley added. “But the fact pattern and the data about planting, harvesting and volunteer management indicates the strong possibility someone introduced wheat seed with the CP4 event sometime after farmer initially planted it.”
Fraley wouldn’t speculate as to someone’s motive in intentionally obtaining GE wheat and then sowing it in a field, but he did say that there are “folks who don’t like biotech and would use this as an opportunity to create problems.”
“In the last day, the FBI has reported two sugarbeet fields in Oregon were destroyed by activists,” Fraley said. “If someone is prepared to break the law and enter a field illegally to destroy, they would be open to the possibility that they would break into a field to collect plants.”
Fraley said that Monsanto is working with USDA to close the investigation, particularly since harvest is fast approaching and in light of the affect dragging out the investigation could have on international markets.
“So far, Japan and Korea have temporarily suspended new purchases of soft white wheat,” Fraley said. “We are not aware of any wheat orders being canceled or deliveries being rejected and there has been no adverse affect on wheat prices.”
Meanwhile, USDA officials continue to work with international trading partners to provide information in a timely fashion. And, it reiterates that the detection of this wheat variety does not pose a public health or food safety concern.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.