Correction: A 2013 APHIS investigation into the origins of glyphosate-resistant wheat discovered in an Oregon field was inconclusive. The source remains undetermined.
A genetically modified wheat variety experimentally seeded in Montana and six other states has been identified by federal investigators as the rogue grain discovered in a Washington field.
The U.S. Animal Plant Health and Inspection Service announced late Friday that the GMO wheat discovered was a Monsanto variety identified as MON 71300 and MON 71800.
Those varieties, genetically modified to survive exposure to the glyphosate, an herbicide branded as Roundup, were tested in the early 2000s at outdoor labs in seven states. The wheat has never been approved for commercial planting. Previous discoveries of “volunteer” plants have resulted in U.S. wheat being temporarily banned in foreign markets.
More than 70% of Montana’s grain is sold overseas, mostly to Japan and other buyers in the Asia Pacific.
But the foreign buyers of U.S. wheat have been tolerant of the latest discovery, partly because of testing that’s occurred since 2013 when rogue Roundup Ready wheat was discovered growing in Oregon.
“I think there’s a pretty sound assurance that it’s not entering the commercial chain in any way,” said Cassidy Marn, Montana Wheat and Barley Committee trade and marketing manager.
Tests for MON 71800 in the commercial supply chain have taken place for several years with no discoveries. The second variety, MON 71300, will get a new test specifically for its characteristics, which are a little different from current tests.
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In the early 2000s Roundup Ready wheat trials were done in seven states by WestBred, which at that time was a Bozeman-based seed developer with ties to Montana State University. The company’s president, Ron Ueland, was a Montana State University alum who died unexpectedly in 2018. WestBred did the work on Monsanto’s behalf.
WestBred then sold to Monsanto in 2009 for $45 million. At the time, Montana said it was taking its genetic wheat research in a different direction, focusing on traits like drought resistance and higher yield. It didn’t intend to revisit development of Roundup Ready wheat, but would seek herbicide and disease resistance traits.
There have been four discoveries of rogue GMO wheat in the United States since 2013. The first, in an Oregon field where GMO tests were never conducted, was discovered after a farmer applied weed killer to a fallow field only to discover volunteer wheat plants, spread across 100 acres, that wouldn’t die.
The 2013 APHIS investigation was inconclusive about the source of GMO wheat, although tests determined the germplasm in the Oregon incident was from a wheat breeding program, of which there were several in the West. The incident was determined to be isolated after the fields of 215 area farmers were tested for Roundup resistant wheat and found mostly nothing. One of the farmers during the investigation had reported discovering Roundup resistant wheat in his field back in 2007, APHIS reported.
In 2014, Roundup Ready wheat was discovered again at the Montana State University Southern Agriculture Research Center in Huntley. It wasn’t the same variety of wheat as the Oregon grain, but like the Oregon discovery, the Huntley wheat also wasn’t intentionally planted. It had been a decade since GMO research had occurred at Huntley. Because the rogue plants were discovered at the research center, which never produces grain for commercial sale, the discovery wasn’t considered a threat to the U.S. wheat trade.
The first Washington discovery of GMO wheat was in 2016. It was a different variety, MON 71700.
Seeds of discontent: Sixteen years ago, Montana State University partnered with Monsanto on what farmers and researchers hoped would usher wheat into the genetic age.
A decade later, with the experiment long abandoned, Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” wheat, which was never federally approved, unexpectedly sprang up at MSU’s Southern Agricultural Research Center in Huntley. The discovery has caused big headaches for MSU. Possessing a genetically modified species that hasn't been approved for planting by the federal government is illegal. And, with no country willing to buy genetically-modified wheat, had the rogue wheat inadvertently entered the food chain, it could have been disastrous for the farm economy.
A Federal report quietly released this month gives the public its first look at what went wrong.