USDA’s investigation into an unauthorized biotech wheat release in Oregon last year found a Washington farmer who encountered wheat impervious to glyphosate herbicides in 2007.
While searching for the possible source of biotech wheat volunteers discovered by an Oregon grower last year, federal investigators interviewed more than 200 wheat farmers.
An unidentified grower in Washington told investigators that in the spring of 2007 he sprayed a patch of wheat volunteers with glyphosate three times but it remained unaffected by the herbicide.
The farmer ended up hand-pulling the 50 wheat plants — which were growing in a long narrow swath along a roadside ditch — and burned the material without sending it for genetic testing, the investigation summary said.
“He has not noticed any volunteers growing since 2007 and has not experienced any other issues with glyphosate-resistant wheat,” the report said, adding that USDA tested samples from his field without finding the genetically-modified “Roundup Ready” trait developed by the Monsanto Co.
The report said that investigators examined notifications from Monsanto for biotech wheat field trials between 1998 and 2004 and found “discrepancies” in the final trial reports, “including inconsistencies regarding the disposition of harvested material, the lack of monitoring for volunteers, and the method of devitalization or final disposition of plot areas.”
Investigators also examined internal Monsanto compliance reports for other field trials but were unable to find a link between these tests and the unauthorized release in Oregon.
Another incident mentioned in the report relates to 38 biotech wheat plants growing in pots at a Monsanto facility in 2003.
A scientist who was monitoring the plants discovered that 18 of the wheat heads were missing, which could contain roughly 1,000 seeds, the report said.
Monsanto and the USDA conducted investigations of the incident but couldn’t figure out what happened to the seeds. Federal officials decided there was “insufficient evidence to pursue administrative enforcement action against Monsanto,” the report said.
Despite these findings, the investigation wasn’t able to identify the source of the unauthorized release in Oregon, the report said.
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said it’s stepping up monitoring of current and former field trial sites.
The agency plans to inspect all the biotech wheat field trial sites in 2014 to ensure volunteers are removed, as well as “strategically selected sites” from field tests that occurred in 2012 and 2013 in multiple states, Ed Curlett, director of public affairs for APHIS, said in an email.
The Center for Food Safety, which is critical of USDA biotech oversight, believes the enhanced inspections are “better than nothing” but don’t go farm enough.
“At this point, I think the suspension of these field trials is called for,” said Bill Freese, the non-profit’s science policy analyst.
Freese said the incident with the Washington farmer finding glyphosate-resistant wheat indicates the unauthorized release may not be limited to a single field in Oregon, as the USDA concluded.
“It’s very likely to have happened more frequently without us knowing it,” he said. “They seem to be unable to stop this from happening, even with one of the most economically important crops in America.”
The Monsanto Co. has issued a response to the investigation stating that full compliance with field trial rules is its top priority and the firm is continuously trying to improve its processes.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization called the USDA’s investigation “thorough” and reiterated the agency’s conclusion that the release was an isolated incident that did not affect the commercial wheat supply.
“This is good news for the U.S. wheat industry as it should have no effect on trade and brings closure to the matter,” said Cathleen Enright, BIO’s executive vice president for food and agriculture, in a statement.