Fresh off of winning the World Food Prize earlier in the week, Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer Dr. Robert Fraley was back at it on Friday. And by “back at it,” I mean trolling anti-GMO activists—something the company is making a habit of. In a call with reporters, Fraley suggested that the mysterious story behind the zombie wheat found in an east Oregon field was one of sabotage.
According to the Associated Press, Fraley said that the irregular distribution of the GMO wheat plants found in the fallow plot was the “pattern you would expect,” if someone had scattered the seeds. In its story, the AP reports that Monsanto believes, “that sabotage is the most likely scenario.”
For its part, the United States Department of Agriculture is still in the investigative stage. And while the agency hasn’t thrown out any possible theories as of yet, it’s reported that investigators are trying to determine if any of Monsanto’s GMO wheat was sent to the federal Plant and Animal Genetic Resources Preservation Research Unit (PAGRPRU) after the company first shelved its field trials nearly a decade ago.
And here’s where Fraley’s story about eco-terrorists seed bombing Monsanto—and the U.S. wheat export market—into this mess starts to unravel: The company says it has records of exactly what was sent to PAGRPRU. Seeds were sent to the USDA facility, but rather than being carefully stored in secure conditions at -18°, the seeds were destroyed. Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher told Reuters,
"We have documentation of what seed was sent to the Colorado facility and documentation of its subsequent destruction. At our direction, the seed was destroyed (incinerated) as it was old material and we had no plans for its future use."
David Dierig, supervisory plant geneticist at PAGRPRU, gives creedence to the security apparatus I imagined protecting a government seed bank. "We're a secure facility," he said in a telephone interview. "We only have a handful of people who have access to our cold belt, where these sample are stored. It's under pretty high security: You have to have a passcard to get in, and even if you do get in, you need to have further clearance to get into the vault. Everyone who has access has undergone intensive background checks."
So, that eliminates PAGRPRU as a place where some radical Right to Know splinter group could have evaded government security to pick up a handful of wheat seeds out of deep freeze in order to carry out their plan to take down the world’s leading biotech company by germinating a few plants—plants that could have easily been overlooked altogether.
Where else could Fraley’s would-be eco-terrorists get their hands on some GMO wheat? The company ended its first round of Round-Up Ready wheat trials in 2005; Monsanto hasn’t planted transgene wheat in Oregon since 2001. After field trials ended, the remaining seed met a fate similar to the specimens sent to PAGRPRU. Per The Guardian, “The company insists the seeds from those earlier trials were shipped backed to its labs in Missouri or destroyed in the field and driven deep into the earth with a backhoe.”
Terms like “initial” and “earlier” have to be used in reference to Monsanto’s trials of GMO wheat now, because the company began testing transgene varieties again in 2009—tests that were only made public after the zombie wheat was discovered in Oregon. In the conspiracy-theory version of this story, the zombie wheat has some nefarious tie to Monsanto’s revived efforts. But the reality is, unlike the transgene spring wheat it has planted in North Dakota and Hawaii in recent years, the plants at the heart of this mystery were winter varieties.
Which leaves, well, not many places where even a determined, organized, well-funded group of environmental activists could get their hands on some still-viable wheat seeds. Next (at least somewhat substantiated) theory, please!