Get the scoop on GMO wheat in Oregon

Frank wants to learn more about wheat.
Frank wants to learn more about wheat.

Most Biofortified Blog readers will have heard by now that glyphosate tolerant genetically engineered wheat has been found growing in a field in Oregon. There’s a lot of interesting details to consider, but for now we’ll start with a simple list of links to help you find reliable information as this story develops.
First, let’s look at some general information about regulation of agricultural biotechnology in the US. There are three agencies that cover different aspects:

For information in the case of glyphosate tolerant wheat found in Oregon, let’s go right to the source:

How have the three agencies (FDA, EPA, USDA) evaluated glyphosate tolerant wheat?

Here are some responses from stakeholders:

There have been a lot of news articles about the glyphosate tolerant wheat, with varying amounts of useful information. Here are just a few:

So far, the announcement has had some effects on trade. Japan and a few other countries have suspended imports of wheat, despite there being no safety concern. The United States exports approximately half of its wheat, and is the biggest supplier of this commodity in the international market.

There is not a lot of information in the scientific literature on glyphosate tolerant wheat. Here are a few articles that readers may find interesting.

As the story develops, I will be covering it in more depth, and I will update this article with more information as it comes out.


  1. So, my comment will probably demonstrate my ignorance (or lack of ability to speculate) but how exactly does this happen?
    I have no problem thinking that genes “escape”. That is, there will always be some amount of “escapes”. But modern grains are notably unsuitable for growing “wild”. Wheat, for example, has non-shattering seed heads which means (I thought) most seeds will not germinate (or at least won’t travel far before they do) without being harvested, threshed, etc. (plus the part where cultivated grains just don’t compete well against wild plants). So I can imagine that even with extreme care in “cleaning up” after a trial, some seeds would remain in one of the tests fields to germinate the next year. But it strains likelihood (to me) that the strain would stick around (without anyone cultivating it) for 8 years unnoticed. Was the field entirely unused for that long? Was it kept clear of weeds (so the wheat had a better chance of survival)? Maybe a similar wheat variety was grown in that field soon after the last trial and whoever was farming it regularly saved seed? The trait wouldn’t be selected against, so I could see a percentage sticking around that way.
    I guess I shouldn’t speculate because eventually the USDA will figure out how it happened but I have talked to people who say this demonstrates why GE doesn’t work — the crops will always “escape” and that’s not good. And while on one hand, I shrug my shoulders and say “well it doesn’t really matter” because the crops aren’t dangerous (nothing with significant known risk is likely to get to field trials). Moreover, it’s not like we worry about non-GE crops (or non-GE traits) “escaping” because we assume that the crops aren’t going to survive well on their own or we don’t care if they do — who cares if rainbow radishes “get out”? But most see GE as different and expect much greater certainty that they won’t “escape”.
    How do we talk about this actual (and known) risk? The Rothamsted wheat trial folks did a fair job last year talking about risk reduction and I found it convincing, but do other people? How do we communicate the real risks (and realities) without sounding dismissive?

  2. Today’s Washington Post editorial:
    “There is nothing inherently wrong with genetically modified crops. Humans have been genetically altering foodstuffs for millennia. That’s how we got modern wheat in the first place — people promoting mutations in wild grasses over centuries to produce a crop that is easier to harvest. With contemporary techniques, scientists in a lab can quickly make genetic changes that would have taken much longer to accomplish through old-school selective breeding, and they can do it with more precision. Just as cultivating better and better strains of wheat helped feed ancient societies, newer techniques offer humanity one way to help sustain a growing population on a warming globe. The world should embrace that opportunity.”

  3. Rachael,
    My guess would be on contaminated seed source(s). I think you are correct that survival and self propagation in that field would be unlikely. From what I’ve read, the farmer has had no trouble in this field prior to this and the field was not used in testing. Contamination could come from uncleaned field equipment or silos, or inadvertent mixing of seed sources during bulking, cleaning, sorting and bagging. The later, of course, would imply the test seed was not all accounted for in the past. It also implies the source was off site, possibly even out of state. I’m sure the investigators are pursuing all these avenues and more, trying to track the source down.
    Describing the real/possible risks (that is: the “risk” that GM grain spread elsewhere) will have to wait until the investigation can determine the scope of the issue. How prevalent was it and for how long, as well as how did it occur? The risks relative to the Rothamsted case are different, as these trials were large scale covering many acres. Rothamsted was small plots in comparison which should be easier to control. Perhaps someone here is familiar with what protocols, if any, exist for cleaning up after a larger scale trial. Given the proprietary nature of the material, I would think Monsanto would be pretty specific in defining and enforcing such things.

  4. I have similar questions. To see volunteers to pop up twelve years after is by any standard extraordinary.
    That the farmer already has a lawyer – who releases intriguing information – that’s extraordinary too…

  5. Nah, this is the US. He’s wise to do that. Everybody sues everybody here. And everybody is gonna hate this poor guy. He needs a buffer from loons. And all he really did was the right thing.
    It will be interesting to see the Team Organic folks try to turn another Roundup-loving farmer into their hero.

  6. Everybody hates Monsanto. I’ve never investigated it too closely, because I find it so boring. It seems like this wheat thing is a great lost opportunity to get back at those pricks at Monsanto. “Finders, keepers,” as the saying goes. So if I was the farmer who found some stray GM glyphosate resistant wheat, I would breed bunch of it, save a whole load of seeds, then GIVE it away to every wheat farmer I can find. Sort of like the Indians did with that Chinese GM cotton. They liked it so much they just took it and bred it themselves. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if someone took Monsanto’s “stray” wheat and spread it everywhere, out of Monsanto’s reach?

  7. I’m still checking up on these details, but Monsanto may have had glyphosate-tolerant winter wheat varieties, but only spring wheat was tested in Oregon. If so, it doesn’t point to persistence in the environment as a likely cause.

  8. Perhaps someone here is familiar with what protocols, if any, exist for cleaning up after a larger scale trial.
    The requirements for field trials can be found in US regulations. Researchers with genetically engineered crops that meet certain requirements can submit a notification application. If those requirements are not met, they must submit a petition application. The regulation for notifications is 7 CFR § 340.3 and the regulation for permits is 7 CFR § 340.4. APHIS has guidance for applicants: Notifications (including a protocol template) and Permits
    Relevant sections of 7 CFR § 340.3:
    The following performance standards must be met for any introductions under the notification procedure.
    (1) If the plants or plant materials are shipped, they must be shipped in such a way that the viable plant material is unlikely to be disseminated while in transit and must be maintained at the destination facility in such a way that there is no release into the environment.
    (2) When the introduction is an environmental release, the regulated article must be planted in such a way that they are not inadvertently mixed with non-regulated plant materials of any species which are not part of the environmental release.
    (3) The plants and plant parts must be maintained in such a way that the identity of all material is known while it is in use, and the plant parts must be contained or devitalized when no longer in use.
    (4) There must be no viable vector agent associated with the regulated article.
    (5) The field trial must be conducted such that: (i) The regulated article will not persist in the environment, and (ii) No offspring can be produced that could persist in the environment.
    (6) Upon termination of the field test: (i) No viable material shall remain which is likely to volunteer in subsequent seasons, or (ii) Volunteers shall be managed to prevent persistence in the environment.

    Relevant sections of 7 CFR § 340.4:
    The application shall include the following information…
    (10) A detailed description of the processes, procedures, and safeguards which have been used or will be used in the country of origin and in the United States to prevent contamination, release, and dissemination in the production of the: Donor organism; recipient organism; vector or vector agent; constituent of each regulated article which is a product; and regulated article;
    (11) A detailed description of the intended destination (including final and all intermediate destinations), uses, and/or distribution of the regulated article (e.g., greenhouses, laboratory, or growth chamber location; field trial location; pilot project location; production, propagation, and manufacture location; proposed sale and distribution location);
    (12) A detailed description of the proposed procedures, processes, and safeguards which will be used to prevent escape and dissemination of the regulated article at each of the intended destinations;
    (13) A detailed description of any biological material (e.g., culture medium, or host material) accompanying the regulated article during movement; and
    (14) A detailed description of the proposed method of final disposition of the regulated article.

  9. According to the Capital Press link posted by MarieB41 below, the growers lawyer has said “Bernasek said the 125-acre field where the transgenic wheat was found was one of several the grower had planted in the fall of 2011 to the soft white winter wheat varieties Rod and WB528. “

  10. I’m pretty sure the variety Monsanto tested was a spring wheat. It makes sense to transform spring wheat first, as it would make it easier to grow multiple generations per year, thereby determining the stability of the trait quicker, as well as getting more seed for testing quicker. Once characterized, the trait can easily be backcrossed into winter wheat.
    I’m with Bill in thinking that the contamination probably came from not all of the seed being destroyed and seed mixture occurring at some point. The likelihood that the seed survived in the wild for that many years would be very improbable.

  11. In the early 2000s, I witnessed (and took part in) regulated field trials of both winter and spring wheat with the Roundup Ready trait. I’m not sure what kind was in Oregon, but both existed and were tested in field trials. When I have time, I will try and write more about the requirements for conducting those studies, including the tedious equipment cleaning and volunteer monitoring.

  12. Is it possible that an anti-gmo group such as Greeenpeace deliberately released this GM wheat to precipitate lawsuits against Monsanto?
    1) Greenpeace already has a history of advocating vandalism and participating in vandalism, destroying and disrupting GE experiments.
    2) Greenpeace has already stolen experimental GM seeds in the past, infiltrating carriers to intercept shipments of GM seeds from one lab to another.
    3) Greenpeace has motive. Noting the 750 million dollar settlement against Bayer with their inadvertent release of their GM rice, this would be a tempting target for Greenpeace to pin a similiar scenario onto Monsanto.
    4) Greenpeace had opportunity. The wheat was tested in fields for several years. Greenpeace has already shown itself to be deft in penetrating restricted areas to cause vandalism and theft. Relatively open fields would have been a piece of cake for Greenpeace’s expertise in such matters.
    The above is only my conjecture, based only on various articles and Greenpeace statements. But, that said, the above would be an avenue of investigation well worth pursuing.

  13. I loved your comment on twitter about the herbicides. I have a feeling that people are under the impression that since there hasn’t been RR wheat that they don’t use herbicides to grow wheat.
    Any chance you’d write up something that would provide some insight there? I think that could be very illuminating.

  14. I’m sure the stats are out there, but what herbicide regimens are typical with wheat? How common are Clearfield wheat varieties? How does “Beyond” herbicide compare in toxicity to Roundup? (Side note: “Beyond” is an awful name for an herbicide. You could not pick one that looks more like the manufacturer is trying to pull a fast one.)

  15. This was an excerpt from an Oregonian Article
    “Nonetheless, Zemetra [Oregon State Crop Scientist] has unique insight into the work: He conducted one of Monsanto’s GM wheat trials in 2000-01 when he worked at the University of Idaho.
    “Very rigorous” protocols controlled the work at agricultural research stations, he said, which only deepens the mystery of how the GM wheat plants popped up in the Oregon field.
    After the studies, GM seeds were burned, buried six feet underground or shipped back to Monsanto, he said. Wide “no-plant” areas were maintained around test sites to prevent pollen movement from the GM wheat to other crops. Testing sites were checked two years after the trials for the presence of “volunteer” wheat plants that might have popped up.
    A “gene flow” study done by OSU in 2005 showed it is possible for genetic traits to transfer from one wheat plant to another — through pollen, for example — but it occurred at a very low rate and the maximum range appeared to be 120 feet, he said. In addition, the GM wheat being tested was a spring-planted variety, while the wheat found in the Oregon field was a winter variety.
    “They don’t flower at the same time,” Zemetra said, making gene flow even more unlikely.
    Accidental seed contamination is possible, but the questions of how and when may be impossible to answer, he said.”

  16. “Roundup Ultra (glyphosate) can be used at 1 to 2 pints per acre after the hard dough stage (30% moisture or less) and at least 7 days prior to harvest. Do not apply to wheat grown for seed; a reduction in germination or vigor may occur. There is no preplant delay before planting soybeans if Roundup Ultra was used as a preharvest treatment in wheat. ”
    You can spray wheat pre-harvest with glyphosate(or 2,4-D or Dicamba)

  17. Here is a scare article:
    The fear seems to be embodied in the phrase “self replicating genetic pollution.” and then a tendency to conflate the scientific and political issues. It would seem wise to address the fear that the wheat will “take over,” and distinguish that fear from Monsanto “taking over” due to fears around patents (small farmer stole corporate wheat, etc)
    does anyone at biofort think there is any real health issue here? why won’t the wheat “self replicate” like Kudzu? (why do anti gmo folk seem to associate “out of control” process with Biotech?

  18. After re-reading article the headline conflicts with the last line…One says Tuesday & the other says Wednesday….

  19. I’ll try to be on the chat. I’ll check on the day. I worked with both Syngenta and Monsanto on their biotech wheat projects back in the 90s. The fit was actually best for midwestern wheat – places where cheat grass was a big weed issue and where Fusarium head blight was a problem.

  20. It is possible, but as I have told others I have talked to about this issue there is no evidence for this claim. Not to be harsh, but it is a conspiratorial hypothesis that would require some pretty good evidence to establish. While you acknowledge that it is only a conjecture, it is just like the claims that anti-GMO groups make. I have seen some say that Monsanto did this on purpose to put the trait out there so it has to be grown… or to sue farmers… etc. Both should be held to the same standard.
    I will be commenting more about what information we have and don’t have (And can get) about this issue later in the week. The history of these plants can be figured out, and it could help us find out whodunnit.

  21. Gregory,
    “genetic pollution” is the misleading emotive term for pollination. I’m working on a post saying that “Rogue wheat is now found in 127 countries!”. In it. I explain that wheat varieties always have genetic drift because they are wind pollinated and there are lots of different wheat varieties grown for very specific reasons that need genetic purity. The industry has decades-old mechanisms to make that work and there is no reason that GMO wheat should be any different. Those wheat varieties were at the verge of commercialization when European and Japanese buyers essentially blackmailed the North American industry saying they would not buy any of their wheat if they planted ANY GMO wheat. This whole mess should never have happened.
    No, there is not health risk. Wheat isn’t an invasive weed like Kudzu. Its a pretty wimpy competitor outside of intentional cultivation. It is also probably one of the oldest human managed crops. It is actually a hybrid of at least two grain species that was accidentally selected by farmers 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.
    Wheat is a 10,100 year-old GM crop. But what the heck. Lets scare people about it!

  22. One thing that needs to be part of the discussion is that some wheat farmers use herbicides on wheat, even glyphosate, for the express purpose of killing the wheat shortly before harvest, so that they can harvest the grain with a slightly reduced moisture content. This was what Richard R. meant in the post yesterday at 3:06 PM. I was completely unaware of this until a few days ago.
    One of the standard complaints about the GMO wheat is that it is “drenched in glyphosate”. But reality, as is so often the case, is not so simple. Apparently much of our non-GMO wheat is “drenched in glyphosate” just about a week before harvest and if there are any bad health effects of glyphosate they are obviously maximized by using the herbicide at harvest time (conventional wheat) versus much earlier (GMO wheat). On the other hand if we consider glyphosate to be very safe, the practice of using glyphosate to kill the GMO wheat just before harvest would have to change, perhaps by using another herbicide which might be less safe.

  23. It should read « the practice of using glyphosate to kill the NON-GMO wheat ». Or « accelerate the drying of ». Or « kill the weeds in the wheat (whether GM or not) to allow immediate sowing of the second crop ».

  24. I am glad somebody raised the question whether there hasn’t been any fraudulent action such as a voluntary mixing.
    In 2010, a total of 47 plants from a non-authorized GM potato variey (‘Amadea’) were found in Sweden in a field with 680,000 seed potatoes of another, authorized GM variety (‘Amflora’).
    This was conveniently attributed to human error, but it is both odd and unbelievable.
    And we had Greenpeace posturing on this…

  25. Andre, your correction adds to clarity but since there is no GMO wheat in intentional commercial production, I thought is was clear enough that I was talking about non-GMO wheat.

  26. I guess my conjecture is somewhat testable. Was any pattern found in the distribution of the volunteer plants? If they follow a pattern consistent with the method of planting used by the farmer, then that would point to mixed seeds in his hopper. However, if the pattern resembles what one would get if hand strewn (small arcs of plants maybe) that might point to a manual distribution by a single person or a smalll group of people.
    But, it should be said that points 1) and 2) aren’t conjecture, but a matter of record.
    So, unlike the claims against Monsanto in this issue, there is already an established pattern of behavior by Greenpeace that this event would be consistent with. Does this mean Greenpeace (or some other copycat anti-gmo group) actually did it? Not by itself, of course, but, i think, it needs to be investigated.

    « In an interview with the Capital Press, Bernasek said he was authorized to release only minimal information… »
    « Bernasek said the 125-acre field where the transgenic wheat was found was one of several the grower had planted in the fall of 2011 to the soft white winter wheat varieties Rod and WB528. »
    What kind of seed? Commercial? Farm-saved? Any connection with Monsanto?
    « The grower found the transgenic wheat in … only about 1 percent of the field. »?
    That makes 1.25 acre, right? Strange for an accidental « contamination ».
    « The uncontrolled volunteers also were not concentrated in any one area, Bernasek said. »
    Well, in any one area of an acre or so…

  28. Looking forward to the post. when you say that industry has decades old mechanisms to make “that work,” I could not tell exactly what the antecedent was. Make “genetic purity” work and so guard against “takeover”?

  29. Everybody thinks “kudzu” about an introduced plant. Nobody thinks “tomato”. Imagine Italy without tomato. I mean–really, wouldn’t that be sad? Are there massive problems with feral tomato plants too?
    And every time I ask open-pollinated heirloom tomato backyard gardeners how they keep the plants from being contaminated by their neighbor’s different heirloom, I never get an answer. How do these breeds remain available?

  30. Karl,
    I listened in on the Fraley talk for reporters. They were careful not to claim any malicious activity, but it is very strange. The grower used the same seed mix in at least two fields but this only shows up in a small part of one. They are waiting to get a sample so they can finger-print it to know exactly what variety it was. Apparently many spring wheats can survive on a Winter wheat planting schedule in Oregon. It will be very interesting to see if this is the exact variety from the old tests.

  31. An acre is still pretty large to manually strewn seed on all of it, 208 feet on it’s side. People taking out seed and throwing it may form arcs with radii of anywhere from 5 to maybe 30 feet. So far, i think, the info given is too granular to make a determination one way or another. If the plants have already been destroyed, it may be too late to find out this way.
    But, it seems, the sabotage angle is being investigated after all:

  32. I’m not sure I follow, why would everybody, or anybody for that matter, hate this guy?
    As you said, he didn’t do anything provocative, he just reported what he found on his property. I was under the impression that the lawyer was to ensure Monsanto compensated him for any loses associated with this incident, but I’m only guessing at that because it just seems logical.

  33. There was a guest talking GMO wheat on the Colbert show tonight (6/5). She explained so-called super weeds were created by genes jumping from roundup ready crops to weeds. I just about fell off my chair. She seriously thinks RR crops breed with weeds? The crowd and Colbert just soaked all this in without question. Find the show online.
    Where do they find these people?

  34. I’m pretty sure even the most ardent anti-GMO activisit doesn’t have a problem with indirect genetic modification, such as selective breeding or genetic drift, but rather direct genetic modification. So if your goal is to educate people on the safety of foods produced through direct genetic modification, as your’s seems to be, aren’t you working against yourself by lumping the two together and then pretending it’s been going on for 10,100 years, as that seems like something they would easily see through?

  35. Yes, while possible, I just want to caution people against leaping to that conclusion. Certainly all avenues should be considered. If the seeds are mixed into a bin, the distribution should be very random, but if hand-sewn it would be closer together.
    I really want to see the results of the genotyping. If the seeds are a completely different variety from the ones grown in the field, then they were mixed in either in the bag, bin, or field. If they are X percent that variety, then it could be mixture in earlier generations, and they should be able to figure out some of the breeding history of the plants by peeking into the genome.

  36. Because most farmers wouldn’t have reported it…especially since it’s a handful of plants. Most farmers would’ve assumed some plants just missed the spray and go spray another chemical on it that would kill it or not worry about it.

  37. Oh, I see, so other farmers will think that he needlessly created all of this controversy.

  38. Ah, geez, when I saw her tweet yesterday that she was going to be the guest on this I was astonished. I can list 10 people off the top of my head who I’ve seen actually talking about this issue that would have been better choices to speak to the issue. I was worried she would not get the details right.

  39. But that’s not a factor of GMOness, or transgenic resistance. It could happen with conventional herbicide resistant strains. Here’s a good example of that possibility:
    But just last month I was discussing this with Andrew Kniss and I said that it’s commonly believed that the RR trait has moved. But there’s no evidence of that. See our discussion on his blog:

  40. Sorry, I was a bit vague there. I know that herbicide resistance isn’t a GMO-specific issue. I was thinking more of any particular GM trait, be it herbicide resistance, Bt or something else. Especially Bt would be a concern if it transferred to wild relatives, no? I read somewhere that it is possible to insert the Cry gene into the chloroplast genome of Tobacco so that the pollen (which lack chloroplasts), which would mean that the GM tobacco could not transfer the trait to any wild (and sexually compatible) relatives.

  41. Oh that’s an easy one. Tomatoes generally have a low outcrossing rate. Lots of us bag flowers to prevent it though for those fruits for which we want to save seeds. Lots of us don’t and we accept the occasional off type.

  42. I am just amazed at the ignorance out there among supposedly educated adults. I do not study crop breeding or genetics. I am just an old ex-farm kid who understands the traits in crops (nonGMO or GMO) aren’t going to “jump” to weeds. The word “jump” was even used on the show. Colbert is mainstream comedy, so it is concerning this type of misinformation is becoming more mainstream. I still have contact with a lot of farmers and I can tell you they will not just go back to nonGMO farming methods used 30 years ago just because of bad info being spread by non-farmers. Some farmers are just laughing this off, but more and more know a bigger political fight is now happening. I am not trying to be political, but that’s the reality. Science will win in the long run. I have no doubt. The political fight may be ugly and even result in political change in farm states, especially in those farm states that are still blue or somewhat blue like IA, MN, OH, and WI.

  43. Herbicide resistance can indeed transfer to a « weedy relative ». But:
    1.  There must be such a relative.
    2.  The weedy relative must grow in the neighborhood of the crop plant (distance depending on the floral and reproductive biology).
    3.  The two must be sexually compatible under natural conditions and be able to produce a seed that is able to germinate and grow into a plant.
    4.  The hybrid between the crop plant and the weedy relative must be able to reproduce, either on its own, or through crossing with plants from either parent species whilst retaining the herbicide resistance character.
    In addition, from an ecological point of view, the plants carrying the (rare) herbicide resistance character should preferably have a competitive advantage over other plants. They won’t in relation to the crop plant (which arguably is also herbicide resistant and, additionally, grow in fields on which weeds are destroyed by the farmer). They would in relation to the weedy relative only where the herbicide is applied.
    Moreover, one would have to assess the agronomic and ecological consequences of a « superweed » having inherited its resistance from a crop plant. This is a risk-benefit assessment, which anti-GM and anti-chemistry people would of course like to reduce to: risk not excluded, GM excluded.
    To put it short (and remain simple):
    1.  Transfer is not possible in the case of wheat.
    2.  There is a theoretical possibility in the case of canola, which has weedy relatives. But I have not read as yet of any occurrence of a successful transfer.
    3.  Sorghum would be a problem child.
    I have perused the document you cited. It is outright scaremongering in my view.

  44. Transfer between wheat and weeds can and does occur. One of the Oregon scientists mentioned above, Dr. Bob Zemetra, demonstrated this when he was at the University of Idaho (my office is across the hall from where his lab was at the time). The weed in question was Jointed Goatgrass, which is particularly troublesome in wheat. People had questioned the possibility of JGG crossing with wheat as they differ in ploidy (Wheat:Hexaploid; JGG:Tetraploid). He was able to successfully cross them, however. See here, for one of their talks: . Since that time, there has been detection of events where JGG obtained genetic traits from Clearfield wheat, which was developed to be tolerant to the BASF herbicide imazamox (Beyond). Clearfield was developed via mutagenisis, not genetic transfer. These hybrids have been found “in the wild”. They have also, unfortunately, shown some competitive advantage over both wheat and JGG. See here: . This ability to transfer to a noxious weed like JGG is one reason many scientists have been leery of deploying HT traits to wheat, regardless of how they were developed.

  45. That’s some very useful information! I’m glad to see they are testing this and rather than market pressure, issues like wild hybridization and advantage. Now that’s a real risk!

  46. Two days ago, Monsanto had a press briefing to talk about the state of the problem and investigation. I was a bit frustrated by the lack of background or detail in most major news stories, though later I found David Tribe had linked to this excellent Bloomberg article. I posted this timeline (partially from stuff people have said here, some from twitter, some from Monsanto’s presentation PDF) to give a “plain language” explanation of what’s going on. The lack of detail about testing done is frustrating. Most stories just have quotes from the Monsanto spokesperson saying it looks like it’s an isolated problem, but don’t give enough the details why they think that, so I wanted those details out there! I posted a version of this on my social media accounts and Anastasia asked me if I could post it here.
    Anyway, on to the timeline:
    – Monsanto’s RR wheat was developed in the late 1990s and field tested in the early 2000s but in 2004 Monsanto decided not to commercialize. International wheat importers were unlikely to decide to import it so domestic growers were unlikely to grow it. Note that before they abandoned it, it had gone thru FDA approvals and most of the USDA ones (hence why they were in field trials).
    – In 2005 all fields were cleaned up. Cleaning up GM crop field tests is very involved. It usually involves digging up all plants, destroying all seed, cleaning any equipment used in the tests very thoroughly, etc.
    – In April this year a wheat farmer in Oregon sprayed his field with glyphosate (commonly sold as Roundup) to kill any volunteers (i.e. weeds or undesirable plants growing from previous years). Glyphosate is very broad spectrum and kills almost all common plants that aren’t large trees or bushes. (Though somehow the blackberry in my yard tolerates it annoyingly well at times.)
    – The farmer discovered some wheat growing in one field that survived the herbicide so he sent it off to his local agricultural extension. They tested it and it seemed to have a trait for Monsanto’s Roundup Ready wheat.
    – Monsanto & the USDA were notified. The USDA asked Monsanto to provide a test that would identify only the wheat-specific roundup event as obviously there are soy, corn, etc. crops that are glyphosate-tolerant with similar genes. The reason is that if you have some mixture in a bin of seed, the simpler test might detect the trait in some corn mixed in the sample. Some small amount of other grains (or other grain varieties) is common in seed supply because cleaning machinery perfectly is expensive and usually not necessary.
    – Over the last month or so (and since the announcement was made public), they’ve been testing samples of wheat and so far not figured out where the RR wheat could have come from.
    So, basically, they (USDA or Monsanto) don’t yet how the Oregon farmer’s field could be growing a variety with the RR trait. The field in question wasn’t used during trials in the early 2000s and, in any case, it’s very unlikely that wheat volunteers would survive year to year that long undetected (wheat is an annual). The testing they did is:
    – The farmer whose field they found it in planted two different varieties of (obviously) non-GMO wheat (of the “white wheat” type). They’ve tested 600 samples each of seed wheat for those two varieties and haven’t found the roundup ready trait.
    – They’ve also tested 50 common white wheat varieties used in the Pacific Northwest (accounting for 60% of the acres planted) and also did not detect the trait.
    – Additionally, some countries have been testing their imports of wheat and haven’t found it.
    So no one really knows how this happened yet, however as has been noted they’ve only tested 60% of commercial white wheat varieties used in the Pacific Northwest. Lyndsey Smith pointed out to me on twitter that Monsanto plans to test the rest of the commercial varieties.
    I find the lawsuit threats (and all the news that focuses on them) and the conspiracy theorizing very sad and premature. We need to learn (as a nation and internationally) how to manage these questions and it’s very possible a trait could have accidentally gotten into a commercial strain unexpectedly. It’s not like equipment is autoclaved between uses. As pointed out elsewhere in the thread, there is even a non-transgenic glyphosate tolerance trait. How would we manage that trait “escaping” into seed lines where breeders and farmers don’t want it? It’s the same issue and I don’t see how freaking out prematurely would help in that case either.

  47. Rachael,
    It should be noted that, while they have not pursued registration, according to the VA Tech database Karl posted above, Monsanto is still testing HT wheat. The database lists 4 trials currently ongoing (they expire in 2014) and several more that will expire in 2013. Of the 2014 trials, all are large scale (>80 acres) including a 300 acre trial in ND. The others are in HI, presumably because they can grow multiple generations/season there. I would think trials of this size are intended to bulk up the seed stocks for potential use, but maybe one of our breeders could comment further on that. Evidently, they still see some promise in it (or did until this came up).
    Also, there was a segment on our NW NPR station yesterday where the reporter interviewed a seed salesman and explained the precautions they take with seed handling. It was a pretty good report:

  48. I can’t remember where I read it, but my understanding is the current trials are a different event and the test Monsanto is using can distinguish between them (different promoters maybe?) so presumably the wheat found in Oregon is definitely the early event and not this newer one. Anyone know more about this?
    I’m not sure what the history is around trying glyphosate tolerance wheat again: it sounds like for various reasons (your comment about about weed hybridization and general international market rejection), there’s not much demand (or at the least it will require some significant research to be managed well).

  49. Yes, I think you are correct on the “events”, aka, modifications being different, as are probably the varieties.
    I do not know the rationale of Monsanto for maintaining the HT wheat idea. A company of that size can probably afford to pursue several avenues of research, even while knowing they may not pan out. Others may be convinced the potential problems can be managed through other means. That seems to be the case with ClearField. Wyoweeds is probably a better source to ask on that :).

  50. Bill,
    My thinking has been that the best use for glyphosate or any other tolerance in wheat would be to use it as a method to insure varietal purity in specific wheat types being grown under contract and in closed loops for uses where certain quality attributes are critical.
    I was much more excited about the trait that Syngenta was developing for increased resistance to Fusarium Head Blight, a disease that not only hurts yields but which can result in contamination with DON, a mycotoxin with the common name vomitoxin. One of the reasons there is not more wheat inserted in corn/soy rotations is that the pathogen can persist on corn stubble and spread to wheat. Soils would be improved if the rotation could be broadened to wheat and it would increase yields of the corn and soy as well. That trait was also shut down by the European/Japanese unofficial pressure on the wheat industry.

  51. Andre,
    Could you be more specific about the Bt brinjal opinion piece by John Samuels in Trends in Biotechnology? As far as I can tell, he’s saying that all four criteria for gene flow that you mentioned in your post are satisfied in the case of Bt brinjal. Is there something he’s leaving out? Again, I don’t have the expertise to judge.

  52. Hawaii would only work for growing spring wheat varieties, as it would not get enough cold weather for winter wheat to vernalize. The exception could be very small scale early generations that could be vernalized in a cold chamber. They might do that if they were backcrossing the trait into multiple varieties and wanted to get an additional generation per year.
    I beleive Monsanto decided to resurrect the HT effort because farmers are more familiar with the technology now, and see wheat suffering in terms of getting research dollars because it is the only major crop that is NOT GM at this point.

  53. Take the first paragraph:
    « Transgene flow from commercialised, genetically engineered ‘Bt brinjal’, to wild, weedy, and cultivated relatives is a major biosafety concern. Selective advantage conferred by the Bt transgene could produce aggressive weeds with the potential for disruption of ecological balance. Our biological knowledge of brinjal and its relatives in South and Southeast Asia is limited and this has impeded adequate biosafety risk assessments relating to plant biodiversity. »
    Sentence one: it is a major concern.
    Sentence two: wild assumption.
    Sentence three: actually, we don’t know.
    Take the part « hybridisation between brinjal and close relatives »:
    « Over the years, >50 experimental, sexual hybridisation studies have examined the potential for hybridisation between untransformed brinjal and its close relatives. Some of these have reported extremely high crossing success, producing vigorous, highly fertile F1 hybrids. »
    References? None.
    Watch the language: what does « potential for hybridisation » mean? Presumably experiments where the researcher artificially crosses two plants.
    There is a table 1, « Solanum species of India known to cross with brinjal », with a footnote 9.
    What is footnote 9? A self-citation!
    A citation of what? A document (not a peer-reviewed scientific article) produced for… Greenpeace.
    We can continue like this for quite a while.
    And I also stumbled over this:
    « Creating superweeds? Bt brinjal and its spread to ‘wild relatives’ »
    First sentence:
    « Delhi’s Devinder Sharma sends the news that the research done by John Samuels of the Novel Solanaceae Crops Project, Penzance, Cornwall, UK,, commissioned by Greenpeace has now been published in Trends in Biotechnology (Vol 31, Issue 6, June 2013). »
    As you can see from the paper, there is no parapgraph on the author’s affiliations, funding, conflicts of interest, etc. And there is nothing about the author, except « Novel Solanaceae Crops Project ». You have to go the the Greenpeace paper to discover that he is an « independent researcher ».
    As for the « Novel Solanaceae Crops Project », a search on the Internet leads to a page under construction.

  54. Come to think of it, I should just have done a pubmed search – only two hits and neither is a research article. I confess to being dazzled by the normally high standard of Cell Press.

  55. Monsanto restarted testing on wheat recently (in the last few years, can’t for the life of me recall if it is 2 or 3 however)
    Nurseries will probably also show up as “trials” in the database, haven’t checked yet, but Hawaii makes for a great nursery location for most crops (obv not winter wheat) due to the essentially year round growing season – I don’t think it’d make a good test field location however as the environment is radically different from target markets.

  56. Thanks Ewan. The word “trials” was mine. I hadn’t thought about the connotations it might carry, though. I don’t think the database makes the distinction, just records for notifications and permits.

  57. Probably worth resurrecting this blog post to add in this from the USDA. So far no evidence of any RR wheat except in this one field.
    “… obtained samples of the wheat seed sold to the producer and other growers; and obtained samples of the producer’s wheat harvests, including a sample of the producer’s 2012 harvest. All of these samples of seed and grain tested negative for the presence of GE material.”

  58. Chris,
    I’m with Karl about not wanting to indulge in conspiracy theory thinking, but circumstantially the evidence we have fits someone going out into this field and throwing around some seed. The key will be to get the genetic fingerprint to know what variety it was in. I don’t see why that should take this long

  59. If Clearfield wheat is created by mutagenesis using cisgenic techniques for cell fusion why doesn’t that genetic modification (GM) with a CMS qualify Clearfield wheat as a GMO and why aren’t all cisgenic cell fusion CMS hybrids classified as a GMO?

  60. Clearfield wheat was created by chemical mutagenesis of seed followed by selection.
    The gene was then transferred to modern wheat cultivars using crossing and back-crossing.

  61. Sorry to resurrect the post but would you by chance have a link to the OSU 2005 study on hand? I’m currently attempting to compile a list on gene flow potential or “cross-pollination” chances for various gm crop types so as to stave off fear that’s feeding into local anti-GMO measures like here in Humboldt, Ca.
    I’ll attempt to look for it as well, but figured to ask while am here 🙂

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