GM wheat scenarios add up to mystery
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The possibility that someone covertly kept and then lost track of biotech wheat seed may be how the restricted crop ended up in an Oregon field, an expert says.
The scenario is the "most plausible among many implausible scenarios," said Norm Ellstrand, a biology professor specializing in gene flow at the University of California-Riverside.
"It is possible that someone somewhere along the way thought, 'This is really nifty stuff, I'm going to hang on to it,'" said Ellstrand. "There's still a lot of dots that don't get connected, but it seems more realistic."
In May, the USDA announced that glyphosate-resistant "Roundup Ready" wheat, which was never authorized for cultivation, had been found growing in a northeast Oregon field.
The discovery has led to a suspension of wheat imports by Japan and millers in South Korea, an investigation by USDA into how the unauthorized release occurred and several negligence lawsuits against the Monsanto Co., the transgenic crop's developer.
Compared to intentional sabotage or cross-pollination with conventional wheat, it seems more likely that a "cooperator" involved in field trials retained some seed without malicious intent, said Ellstrand.
Human nature could cause someone to misplace a small sample they had secretly kept, he said. "It's a novelty."
According to Monsanto, the cooperators who helped conduct field trials of the biotech wheat between 1998 and 2005 consisted of seed companies and universities.
The cooperators were expected to send back any seed to USDA or Monsanto for long-term storage, said Tom Helscher, a company spokesman, in an email.
When asked how Monsanto could find out if a cooperator had kept seed without disclosing it, Helscher replied, "Correspondence was provided to Monsanto certifying that all remaining plant materials were returned, all field plantings destroyed and fields were monitored for volunteers according to protocol."
It doesn't seem plausible for the Roundup Ready gene to have persisted in the environment, contaminating conventional wheat over the years since testing halted, said Ellstrand.
"Recent gene flow by pollen seems extremely unlikely," he said. "You'd need a lot of wheat plants producing a lot of pollen."
An attorney for the farmer who found the Roundup Ready wheat said the biotech crop comprised about 1 percent of a 125-acre field.
While this doesn't sound like much, it would actually represent a high level of contamination, said Ellstrand. If cross-pollination were to blame, the problem would be widespread in the region.
"One percent is high," he said. "You'd be finding it in other people's fields."
Even if not reported by farmers, the biotech seed would likely have turned up through testing of seed or end products by now, Ellstrand said. "It just doesn't add up."
Similarly, a larger-scale release of biotech wheat seed into the conventional seed supply would likely have been detected more broadly, he said. Sabotage by environmentalists seems "equally improbable."
"It's a real mystery," Ellstand said. "I'm really baffled by this."