The Oregon ‘zombie wheat’ mystery of 2013 is heading for the cold-case files. According to USDA, it was an accident, and no one knows where the genetically engineered seed came from. It was never approved for commercial production and hadn’t been tested in the area for more than a decade. “We were not able to make a conclusion as to how it happened,” Bernadette Juarez, who led the investigation for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said on a call with reporters. The agency deems the zombie wheat that cropped up in a fallow field an “isolated incident,” and there’s no sign that the unapproved wheat worked its way into the international commodity market.
That’s the summary of the 12,842-page report the agency compiled on the incident.
But there’s more! Also included in the Friday news dump was information about a new zombie wheat case USDA is digging into. In the third paragraph of its press release announcing that the Oregon case was closed, the agency revealed that an incident in Montana is under investigation. Back in July, the agency was notified by Montana State University that volunteer wheat plants on a small plot managed by the school's Southern Agricultural Research Service in Huntley, Mont., appeared to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. SARC worked with agribusiness giant Monsanto to conduct field trials of GMO wheat, which was genetically engineered to withstand applications of the herbicide, between 2000 and 2003. Further testing showed that the wheat was indeed resistant to glyphosate.
While American corn and soy have long been dominated by genetically engineered hybrids, there has never been a crop of commercial GMO wheat planted anywhere in the world. When Monsanto shelved its field trials in 2005, much of the remaining seed was destroyed. In theory, the seeds the Monsanto wheat grew from no longer exist. (The company started developing new biotech wheat varieties in 2011, but those projects have yet to reach the field trial stage.)
Releases from USDA and MSU are careful to allay fears of GMO cross-contamination with commercial Montana wheat. The area has been devoted to barley and sugar beet production since 2006, according to MSU News Service, and the plot in question is bordered by beet fields on three sides and a highway and houses on the fourth—not a wheat field in sight. The university’s wire report also points out that the wheat was immature when it was discovered. The plants hadn’t flowered yet, meaning they hadn’t produced pollen that could potentially cross with other non-GMO wheat—none of which, of course, was growing nearby.
It’s all a very calm, deliberate way of saying zombie wheat will not march across the Northern Great Plains. Anyone with stakes in the industry has reason to be worried—not because of GMO contamination but because of the fear of GMO contamination. A full 80 percent of Montana’s wheat harvest is exported, and the state ranks among the country’s top wheat producers. After the grain is harvested, much of it is shipped out of ports in the Pacific Northwest to countries such as Japan and South Korea—countries that suspended wheat orders from the United States in 2013. That “temporary” suspension of exports was enough to screw farmers across the country—there’s no telling if a kernel in a sack of American wheat was grown in Oregon or in Kansas—leading to a class-action lawsuit that Monsanto recently settled for an undisclosed sum. In a similar case from 2011 involving GMO rice and hybrid contamination, Bayer paid $750 million to farmers who lost money on potential exports.
Despite those sugar beet fields, it’s highly likely that this latest zombie wheat incident will start the process all over again.