Amid uproar over escaped GMO wheat, Monsanto tests more strains

June 4 Tue Jun 4, 2013 5:38pm EDT

June 4 (Reuters) - While regulators probe the discovery of an experimental genetically modified wheat long thought abandoned by biotech seed developer Monsanto Co, the company has a new line of field experiments on biotech wheat underway.

The company is no longer pursuing the same "Roundup Ready" spring wheat it designed more than a decade ago to tolerate dousings of its Roundup weedkiller, which is the strain found in a wheat field in Oregon in April. But it is developing similar strains that are genetically altered for herbicide tolerance as well as other traits, according to the company and regulatory filings.

"Our work in wheat is focused on helping improve wheat productivity, including breeding, biotechnology and improved agronomic practices," said Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles in a statement.

The company's near-term focus is on breeding better varieties, which in the long term could serve as the foundation for new biotechnology traits, he said.

New biotech wheat from Monsanto is at least a decade away from commercial approval, he said. But the company has conducted small-scale, entry level field trials in North Dakota testing some biotechnology pipeline projects.

This year, Monsanto is pursuing both a new glyphosate-tolerant project - glyphosate is the main ingredient in Roundup herbicide - and a separate herbicide-tolerant project that is designed to make wheat tolerant of multiple herbicides, including dicamba.

Monsanto's biotech wheat work was thrown into the spotlight last week when the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed the discovery of Monsanto's experimental, unapproved Roundup Ready wheat in a farm field in Oregon. Since then, Asian buyers have backed away from U.S. purchases and the U.S. wheat industry is worried that if any of the biotech wheat is discovered in export shipments, billions of dollars of exports could be rejected.

Monsanto said it last field tested the Roundup Ready wheat in 2005 and that it does not know why it would be growing this spring.

Quarles would not say if the company was changing its field testing protocols in light of the issues with the wheat found in Oregon, but said that its biotech field testing is done under "strict regulatory oversight and under confined and tightly-controlled conditions."

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