As the USDA continues its investigation into the appearance of genetically engineered wheat in Washington state, an industry official and a university researcher say too little information is available to answer the key question: How did it happen?
A farmer reported 22 glyphosate-resistant wheat plants on June 14. USDA determined that they are of Monsanto’s MON 71700 variety. Since then, agency investigators have been trying to narrow the list of possible explanations for how the wheat, which was never made commercially available, could have turned up in the fallow field.
Three years ago, Oregon State University weed scientist Carol Mallory-Smith worked on the first such incident, when a different variety, MON 71800, was found in an Eastern Oregon field.
A USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service investigation was unable to pinpoint its source.
A different variety was found in a Huntley, Mont., research field in 2014.
Mallory-Smith is not involved in the current investigation.
“They have to be picking that seed up somewhere,” Mallory-Smith said. “And that’s the big question: Where was the leak in the system?”
According to Monsanto, MON 71700 was tested in field trials in the Pacific Northwest from 1998 to 2001.
Mallory-Smith said the wheat seed could not have lay dormant 10 years in the field where it was discovered.
However, she said seed from those trials could still be viable, depending on where it was stored.
“It doesn’t last in the field for 10 years,” she said. “But seed stored properly could be 10 years old and still be viable. It’s coming from somewhere, but I don’t know where.”
Dana Herron, a member of the Washington Grain Commission and co-owner of Tri-State Seed Co. in Connell, Wash., agreed.
“Seed that’s been in the soil for 15 years, there’s a very infinitesimally small chance it would be viable,” Herron said. “You’re talking about seven crop cycles and seven fallow cycles.”
Herron also said it’s not likely the discovered wheat is a mutation or has evolved somehow.
“That’s basically genetically impossible,” he said. “Somewhere along the line, there is some human involvement. I hope the investigation finds the cause, because it’s extremely disrupting to the marketplace and the confidence of our customers, which we depend on greatly.”
Some theories investigators will consider include:
• An act of sabotage.
“If you were to put me on the spot, and I had to pick a likely scenario, that would be the one that came to my mind first,” Herron said.
Mallory-Smith wonders what the motivation of sabotage would be and how it would succeed.
“I don’t know how likely it would be,” Mallory-Smith said. “I don’t know what the purpose of sabotage would be. Everything would have to be perfect for somebody to even report it. The person would have to have knowledge of farming practices that particular farmer was using. There’s all kinds of things that make sabotage seem difficult, at best.”
• Spreading by wildlife, such as geese, deer or mice.
“In my mind, that makes no sense,” Herron said. “I don’t think there’s any evidence to substantiate that.”
• Accidentally falling off equipment.
Without further information from APHIS, Herron is assuming the plants in Washington were all in a smaller area in the field, similar to what happened in Eastern Oregon and Montana. The motions the wheat would have to go through make this scenario unlikely, he said.
“It’s impossible that all those seeds ran out in one little area while the guy was seeding 500 acres, or 1,000,” he said. “Rules of probability tell me this is an artificial thing.”
Herron said it’s difficult to dispel or substantiate anything without more information.
“We just don’t know the facts,” he said. “Until we do, all we’re doing is pouring gas on a fire, and I don’t want to do that. It’s so very difficult to come to any conclusions when you don’t know all the facts.”
Mallory-Smith said she doesn’t believe that a lot of GE material is out there and unknown to the industry. There would be more complaints if it were, she said.
“Now, seed somebody has or is storing, that’s anybody’s guess,” she said. “Maybe somebody has it and doesn’t even know they have it. It doesn’t look any different. Somebody could be producing it for whatever and not actually know they have it.”
Mallory-Smith said another possibility is the seed could have been in breeding stock somewhere. How it could have been mixed into the production system is anyone’s guess, she said.
“There was a lot of testing in the environment of that wheat years ago, which makes it very difficult to follow up or investigate,” she said. “Once the gene is put into the environment, you can’t expect that it’s going to go away, that you won’t ever be able to find it again or that it would never show up again.”
That’s the case for any type of crop, not just GMOs, Mallory-Smith said.
“If it’s another crop with a specific trait, you put that trait out there, it’s not going to go away,” she said. “DNA doesn’t disappear, genes don’t disappear.”