Rise of the Zombie Wheat
When an Oregon farmer recently found wheat growing in a fallow field, he did what most farmers do with unwelcome plants: blasted them with the weed-killer Roundup. And that should have been the end of the story.
Except the plants didn’t die.
That they survived weed killer was by design, in one sense: Monsanto spent years developing and testing Roundup-resistant wheat, a similar product to its dominant weed-killer-resistant corn and soybean hybrids. The problem is, the wheat was never put into commercial production, since the project was shelved back in 2004—but not before the FDA approved it for human consumption. The last Oregon field trail was in 2001.
Scientists at Oregon State University and the USDA have confirmed that the wheat was genetically engineered, but no one can account for where the GMO wheat seeds came from. Monsanto, for its part, issued a “we’re here to help!” press release that, following a few cooperative-sounding paragraphs, gets around to a classic non-denial denial:
The necessary testing requires sophisticated methods, considerable expertise and meticulous laboratory techniques to generate reliable results. Commercial test strips, which are used to detect the presence of glyphosate tolerance in soybeans, canola, cotton and sugar beets, generate a very high incidence of false positive detections (greater than 90 percent) and are not reliable for wheat.
The company says it has “not received details about the testing USDA has performed, nor has UDSA provided us with samples necessary to verify their findings.”
But Robert Zemetra, the wheat breeder at OSU, strongly disagrees with the suggestion that test strips nearly always deliver false positives. “We’ve found them to be highly accurate—as dependable or more dependable than gene tests,” he tells TakePart.
And since the presence of Roundup-resistant wheat in an Oregon field was “highly unexpected,” Zemetra and his colleagues checked and rechecked and counter-checked their results, doing two trait-checks with test strips and testing the DNA twice as well. “Once we had positive results that we were confident on, that’s when APHIS [Animal Plant Health Inspection Service] was notified.”
Despite Monsanto’s skepticism, most everyone else is buying that this is indeed transgene wheat—and it’s unexplained presence on one farm could have a big impact on the wheat export market.
According to The New York Times,
The mere presence of the genetically modified plant could cause some countries to turn away exports of American wheat, especially if any traces of the unapproved grain were found in shipments. About $8.1 billion in American wheat was exported in 2012, representing nearly half the total $17.9 billion crop, according to U.S. Wheat Associates, which promotes American wheat abroad.
The Times story, along with most other reporting on the mystery wheat, makes much of the fact that growers were initially resistant to genetically altered wheat because so much of their crop is grown for export; nearly the entire Oregon harvest ends up being shipped overseas; transgene wheat has yet to be approved in any country.
Indeed, Japan has already imposed an import restriction on American soft white wheat, according to the National Association of Wheat Growers.
So where did the wheat come from? And is there more of it out there? Andre Bell, a spokesperson with the USDA, tells TakePart that there’s no information ready to be released at this time. “The only thing I can provide right now is that this whole situation is under investigation.”
“That’s the big mystery from a scientific standpoint,” says Zemetra, who has been running through possible ways the GMO wheat found its way into the fallow field. “I keep having trouble trying to find out a plausible scenario.”
While the USDA wouldn’t disclose any information about APHIS’s approach to investigating where the GMO wheat seeds for the plants came from or if there’s further contamination on other farms, Zemetra was willing to offer a bit of informed speculation, “I would find out what the farmer grew, I would find out where he got the seed, then you go to the seed dealer and do two things: find out who else he sold to, find out where he got the seed.”
If APHIS can determine which growers ended up with GMO wheat seed, that will go a long way toward solving the case, because in terms of genetic drift, there's little concern here. Unlike corn, wheat doesn’t cross freely, so “there’s a very low chance” of the G.E. trait spreading into other fields, according to Zemetra. A study he was a part of determined that there was less than a 1 percent occurrence of wheat crossing with plants within 150 feet. The wheat found on the Oregon farm was a winter variety, so it wouldn’t flower at the same time as the spring wheat growing in nearby fields.
In the long run, the zombie wheat may actually help reinforce the GMO-free status of American wheat. “It’s going to probably make the wheat industry have more testing, to ensure our customers that the product they have is GMO free,” Zemetra said, which is a far more optimistic conclusion than some of the transgene wheat fear-mongering the news has sparked.
“I believe we can determine how extensive it is, I believe we can get it out of the market,” he said, “But I’m not sure that we can find out how it occurred.”