WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After an alert a month ago, a team of U.S. plant detectives methodically began to gather evidence for what would lead to a jarring announcement for the farm world - that genetically modified wheat, not approved for cultivation anywhere in the world, was growing in Oregon.
The rogue wheat turned out to be a strain developed by biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. (MON.N) more than a decade ago and abandoned in the face of worldwide opposition to genetically modified (GM) wheat. Final field tests on the strain had concluded in 2005.
U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists had to work back to those days and work quickly. At stake was the $8 billion a year U.S. wheat export business and a lot of buyers who recoil at the idea of GM crops, in part due to pressure from consumers.
A team of nine investigators from USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which oversees biotech crops, was sent to the U.S. Pacific Northwest to conduct interviews, collect samples and gather records - attempting to unravel the mystery of how a long forgotten, unapproved grain appeared when no seeds were believed to be available.
The process started to unfold in late April when a farmer in northeastern Oregon found unwanted “volunteer” wheat seedlings in a field that was held fallow this year after being planted to winter wheat in 2012.
Surprisingly, some of the wheat sprouts survived after the farmer sprayed them with glyphosate, a powerful, widely used weed killer often branded as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready.
The farmer, whose name was not disclosed, sent leaf samples to Oregon State University, where they arrived on April 30.
Tests by a team that included crop geneticist Carol Mallory-Smith, a professor in the department of crop and soil science, indicated the wheat was glyphosate-resistant. She contacted USDA on May 3, a Friday, to relate the findings.
By the following Monday, USDA had two investigators at work in Oregon. The team grew over the ensuing weeks to nine members “to work quickly and carefully to cover as much ground each day to determine what we are dealing with, how it got there and where it might have gone,” said APHIS spokesman Ed Curlett.
Michael Firko, acting deputy APHIS administrator, told a news conference on Wednesday the investigation remains active in several western U.S. states, though he would not say which ones.
Monsanto conducted field tests on GM wheat in 17 states from 1998 to 2005, including trials in Oregon between 1999 and 2001.
To pin down the origin of the wheat, USDA extracted DNA from the tissue of wheat plants collected by its investigators from the Oregon field, and sent material to three facilities.
Two USDA laboratories were part of the tests, one in Gastonia, North Carolina, run by the Agricultural Marketing Service and the other, part of the grain inspection service, in Kansas City.
“These labs have the equipment and expertise to develop and run tests to confirm or deny the presence of (genetically modified) DNA,” Curlett said.
The third lab, an unnamed outside contractor, conducted full genome testing of the samples. Monsanto was notified of the investigation in early May and provided the procedures and methods to test for their trait, known as MON71800.
All three labs “confirmed the presence of GE material in the wheat samples that matches the GE trait developed by Monsanto for glyphosate tolerance in wheat,” said USDA.
USDA termed the tests complicated and time-consuming. It was not until late May that it had “absolute confirmation” of what it found in Oregon - at which point USDA took steps to limit the fallout.
Top U.S. officials called major overseas trading partners to brief them. USDA held conference calls with major domestic farm and trade groups, and a hastily-convened press conference.
But while the investigators pinned it down to GM wheat from Monsanto, they don’t have the answers about how it got to that Oregon field and whether it might be present elsewhere.
Right now, they say they have no idea how long this investigation will take.
Editing by Ros Krasny, Mary Milliken and Richard Pullin