USDA probes Colorado storage site in GE wheat mystery

The U.S. Agriculture Department, probing how a genetically engineered (GE) trait entered an Oregon wheat field and the extent of the contamination, has tested a dozen wheat samples and is looking at a national seed storage facility in an effort to resolve the mystery and calm a troubled market for U.S. wheat exports, a spokesman said on Thursday.

None of the more than 100 tests of the 12 grain samples have turned up positive for the experimental GE trait that was found in the Oregon wheat field this spring, said Ed Curlett, a spokesman for USDA.

“Our ongoing investigation seeks to determine how the incident with GE wheat in Oregon occurred, and all leads are being pursued,” he said.

Industry players remain on edge as the wheat harvest in the Pacific Northwest nears, and farmers fear they will have problems selling their wheat as the mystery of how the contamination happened and how widespread it is remains unsolved.

USDA has yet to specify details on the type of wheat under suspicion after the rogue biotech wheat plants were found in April in a farm field in Oregon. The farmer who discovered the plants had been trying to kill them off with Roundup herbicide, and when they would not die, he had them tested at Oregon State University.

Those tests, and subsequent government tests, confirmed the presence of the GE herbicide-resistant trait for wheat developed by Monsanto more than a decade ago.

Monsanto had hoped to commercialize its Roundup Ready wheat, but broad market opposition to biotech wheat led the company to stop field tests in 2005.

“We’re in the dark as much as everyone else. We don’t know what they are testing,” said Bob Zemetra, an Oregon State wheat breeder. “They haven’t talked to us at all.”

USDA said Thursday it is investigating whether any of the experimental wheat was shipped to a government seed storage facility in Colorado.

Monsanto officials said earlier this month that when the company closed its field trials, it told participants they could ship some seed materials to the Colorado facility, called the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation.

Claire CaJacob, head of Monsanto’s wheat project, said it’s routine for Monsanto to store experimental seed both at its own facilities and at the government location.

The national centre is designed to preserve a collection of genetic resources for U.S. agriculture and includes a small catalog of genetically altered and patented seed material from companies such as Monsanto, as well as a wider selection of publicly available materials.

Officials with the centre said Thursday they were uncertain whether or not they had ever received the experimental wheat in question, and USDA’s Curlett said how much, if any, seed was sent there, and if it was all accounted for, was one part of the government’s investigation.

As the probe continues, some foreign buyers continue to shy away from the western white wheat variety grown in Oregon and other states. This week marked the fourth in a row that Japan’s ministry of agriculture avoided the U.S. western white grade in a regular weekly wheat purchase.

Japan was one of the first nations to shun U.S. white wheat imports after the May 29 USDA announcement of the discovery of the GE wheat.

USDA maintains that there is no evidence that any biotech wheat has entered commercial supplies.

— Carey Gillam reports on agribusiness and ag commodities for Reuters from St. Louis.

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