For global consumers now on high alert over a rogue strain of genetically modified wheat found in Oregon, the question is simple: How could this happen? For a cadre of critics of biotech crops, the question is different: How could it not?
The questions arose after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday that it was investigating the mysterious appearance of experimental, unapproved genetically engineered wheat plants on a farm in Oregon. The wheat was developed years ago by Monsanto Co to tolerate its Roundup herbicide, but the world's largest seed company scrapped the project and ended all field trials in 2004.
The incident joins a score of episodes in which biotech crops have eluded efforts to segregate them from conventional varieties. But it marks the first time that a test strain of wheat, which has no genetically modified varieties on the market, has escaped the protocols set up by U.S. regulators to control it.
"These requirements are leaky and there is just no doubt about that. There is a fundamental problem with the system," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists who served on a biotech advisory subcommittee for the Food and Drug Administration from 2002 to 2005.
The discovery instantly roiled export markets, with Japan canceling a major shipment of wheat, a quick reminder of what is at stake - an $8 billion U.S. wheat export business.
Many fear the wheat most likely has been mixed in with conventional wheat for some time, but there are no valid commercial tests to verify whether wheat contains the biotech Roundup Ready gene.
"A lot of people are on high alert now," said Mike Flowers, a cereal specialist at Oregon State University. "We can't really say if it is or isn't in other fields. We don't know."
A month has passed since U.S. authorities first were alerted to the suspect plants in Oregon, yet it remains unclear how the strain developed. Monsanto officials said it is likely the presence of the Roundup Ready genetic trait in wheat supplies is "very limited." The company is conducting "a rigorous investigation" to find out how much, if any, wheat has been contaminated by their biotech variety. U.S. regulators are also investigating.
Bob Zemetra, one of the Oregon State University wheat researchers who first tested the mystery wheat when an unnamed farmer mailed a plant sample, said there is no easy way to explain the sudden appearance of the strain years after field tests ended.
Cross-pollination seems unlikely, Zemetra said, because the field where the plants were discovered was growing winter wheat, while Monsanto had field tested spring wheat. There hadn't been any test sites in the area since at least 2004, making it unlikely the new genetic strain would have been carried on the wind.
"I don't know that we are ever going to get a straight answer, or a satisfactory answer, on how it got there," Zemetra said.
'RIGOROUS TESTING PROTOCOL'
Government records show Monsanto conducted at least 279 field tests of herbicide-resistant wheat on over 4,000 acres in at least 16 states from 1994 until the company abandoned its field testing of wheat in 2004.
Zemetra participated in Monsanto wheat trials a decade ago, while working as a wheat breeder at the University of Idaho. When Monsanto decided to halt the testing, he said, the company had strict rules about handling test materials.
"Pretty much all that seed, and any program that was using it, either buried it, burned it or shipped it back to Monsanto, as part of the instructions for doing the field testing," he said. "It was a very rigorous testing protocol."
Researchers were requested to watch the plots for "volunteer" growth for at least two years after conclusion of the tests, Zemetra added.
Zemetra first became aware of the wheat found in Oregon when a farmer brought in what he described as several isolated wheat plants that had emerged after he sprayed Roundup on a fallow field in eastern Oregon. The farmer had last harvested a crop of white winter wheat from the field in 2012.
A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2008 highlighted several gaps in regulations designed to prevent genetically altered crops from escaping test plots.
The report's conclusions were based on USDA data that there were 712 violations of its regulations from 2003 to 2007, including 98 that could lead to a possible release of unauthorized crops.
The GAO study said the USDA lacked the resources to conduct routine testing on areas adjacent to the GMO crops. Instead, the report found, the government relied on biotechnology companies to voluntarily provide test results.
A 2005 report by the Office of Inspector General for the USDA was critical of government oversight of field tests of GMO crops. The report said there was a risk "that regulated genetically engineered organisms... will inadvertently persist in the environment before they are deemed safe to grow without regulation."
While the reports noted problems with government oversight, USDA itself lists 21 "major incidents of noncompliance" from 1995 through 2011. Five of those involved Monsanto and included a failure by the company to properly monitor test fields, a failure to follow certain test planting protocols and a failure to properly notify regulators about test activities.
'CAN'T GET RID OF IT'
Developers of biotech crops say testing shows they are safe for humans, animals and the environment, and farmers like Roundup Ready corn, soybeans and other crops because genetic alterations enable them to survive dousings of the herbicide.
But critics of the so-called "Franken foods" point to scientific studies that claim links to health problems, while raising other environmental concerns connected to biotech crops that require close scrutiny.
Many international buyers will not accept genetically modified grain, and several U.S. food companies also reject GMOs. When Monsanto in 2004 shelved its Roundup Ready wheat research, the move came amid a backlash from foreign buyers who said they would reject U.S. wheat if DNA-altered wheat was commercialized.
Still, Alan Tracy, president of U.S. Wheat Associates, said despite the contamination problem, the wheat industry was supportive of continued research into biotech traits for wheat.
Farmers are planting less wheat and more of other crops that have been genetically altered in ways that can help farmers grow more grain, Tracy said.
"Our industry remains strongly supportive of continued research and development of biotech traits for wheat," he said.
But finding ways for conventional grain and biotech grain to co-exist will continue to fall short if regulators don't force crop developers to contain their products, critics said.
"This whole idea of co-existence, that has been the No. 1 theme at USDA. But you can't have co-existence when you can't control contamination," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at the Center for Food Safety, which has sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture to try to force tighter regulation of genetically modified crops.
In the meantime, the search is on for the source of the mystery wheat.
Jim Shroyer, a wheat agronomy expert at Kansas State University, said it was likely the Roundup Ready wheat has grown for years in eastern Oregon only to be discovered recently.
"Probably what happened is it got mixed in with a farmer's field eight years ago and has been there ever since," Shroyer said. "That is the main reason we here in the top wheat state did not want Roundup Ready. You can't get rid of it.