The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service investigated for 17 months and says it still can’t explain how unauthorized Roundup Ready wheat plants found their way last year to a field in Eastern Oregon far from any test plot.
That’s disturbing in itself, and completely unsatisfactory to growers in the region and their foreign buyers who demand an uncontaminated, GMO-free product. Still more troubling is what investigators did find — additional instances of genetically modified wheat turning up where it shouldn’t be, and proof that the agency’s test plot safeguards are unreliable.
USDA’s final report and the 13,000 pages of related documents reveal:
• Several acres of volunteer Roundup Ready wheat were discovered on a test plot at Montana State University. The site had been used for field trials between 2000 and 2003. That wheat had traits similar to the plants found in Oregon, but different genetics.
• A Washington farmer told investigators that he discovered around 50 glyphosate-resistant wheat plants in his field in 2007. After they survived three separate applications of the herbicide, the farmer hand-picked the plants and burned them without sending them for genetic testing.
• 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.”
• A Monsanto scientist monitoring 38 biotech wheat plants growing in pots discovered that 18 of the wheat heads were missing, which could contain roughly 1,000 seeds, the report said. Investigations by Monsanto and APHIS failed to discover what happened to the seeds.
When the Oregon incident came to light last year, APHIS touted the procedures developers must follow to safeguard test plots.
But our reporting confirmed the USDA’s oversight of biotech test plots and the resulting seed is lax.
Companies have leeway to meet certain performance standards to keep viable genetically modified seeds from spreading into neighboring fields or into the seed or food supply chains. APHIS allows companies to execute their plans without any direct oversight, and depends on developers to self-report compliance and any incidents where material has escaped.
Now APHIS says it’s stepping up monitoring of current and former field trial sites.
It plans to inspect all 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.
The Center for Food Safety believes the enhanced inspections are “better than nothing” but don’t go far enough. They’re right.
We support the development of genetically modified crops, and the right for growers to produce those that have been approved and are economically viable. We also appreciate the havoc an unauthorized release can create in the market.
This is one area where government needs to take a hands-on approach to ensure the final disposition of the product of these trials.
These extra steps might not prevent the accidental release of unapproved genetically modified material, but they would provide consumers, farmers and critics more confidence in the approval process.