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June 24, 2013 at 6:21 AM

The genetically modified wheat in Oregon: Was it sabotage?

Soft white wheat near Ritzville, Wash.  Alan Berner / The Seattle Times

Soft white wheat near Ritzville, Wash.
Alan Berner / The Seattle Times

The appearance of genetically engineered wheat in a field in Oregon begins to look like an act of sabotage.

That’s the conclusion that comes to mind after a telephonic press briefing Friday with Robb Fraley, the chief science officer at Monsanto Co. Monsanto is the company that developed the  wheat variety that was found—CP4—and that produces the herbicide Roundup. The Oregon farmer discovered the CP4 wheat when he twice sprayed a fallow field with Roundup, which killed all the plants except CP4 wheat, which is designed to withstand Roundup.

In his briefing Fraley was careful not to use the word, “sabotage.” He said the appearance of the genetically engineered wheat in one field in Oregon is “highly suspicious” and should be investigated.

Here’s why. The CP4 wheat was “volunteer”—that is, it came up this spring in a field that had been harvested in 2012 and left fallow.  Volunteer wheat is a common thing, because in the harvesting with a combine, some of the seed falls to the ground. If the farmer had planted and harvested a patch of GE wheat, the GE volunteers would be spread around. These were not. They were in “patches and clumps here and there” on 1 percent of a 123-acre field, which is the pattern you would expect, Fraley said, “if someone had entered the field and spread the seed mechanically or by hand.”

The farmer could have done it, but why would he plant it and report  on himself? The farmer has not been identified, but the people involved in this are not pointing fingers at him.

Who else?

Maybe a saboteur.

Thousands of wheat samples have now been tested by Monsanto, by USDA and by Washington State University. So far, the CP4 wheat has not been found anywhere in the seed stock or wheat for sale. Monsanto engineered wheat was planted in some plots in Oregon as a test years ago, but the last test ended 12 years ago, and the remaining seeds were supposed to have been destroyed. It was never planted on this farm. So where did it come from?

Who had the motive to plant it? You can imagine a commercial motive among the competitors of Pacific Northwest grain – Canadians or Australians or Russians etc. But it’s a farfetched image. This is not the sort of thing ag people do.

This is the sort of thing eco-terrorists do. They’re around. They hate Monsanto. And the FBI is investigating the apparent sabotage of a test of genetically modified sugar beets in southeastern Oregon.

We don’t know yet. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is investigating, and when it announces its findings, the picture may change. The next thing people want to know is whether the CP4 wheat was hard red wheat or soft white wheat. Soft white is what farmers in eastern Oregon plant. Most CP4 wheat is hard red. If it’s hard red, it will look even more suspicious.

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