Washington wheat growers file lawsuit
Several Washington wheat growers filed suit Thursday against Monsanto Co. over the unauthorized release of genetically modified wheat, claiming the discovery of the wheat in an Oregon field last week has damaged sales of exports.
The lawsuits, filed two days after a Kansas farmer filed a similar lawsuit against the company, seek class-action status on behalf of all growers of soft white wheat who may have been harmed by the release of an unapproved product.
Soft white wheat is a variety popular with growers in the Pacific Northwest, where nearly 90 percent of the crop is exported to Asian markets for noodles and crackers.
WASHINGTON — Several plant scientists questioned conclusions Monsanto Co. drew from its investigation of an escaped gene-altered wheat variety and said there is still a risk that rogue grain is in the seed supply.
In its first detailed response to last week's announcement that a genetically modified wheat not approved for use was found growing in an Oregon farmer's field, Monsanto said that it has since tested 31,200 seed samples in Oregon and Washington and found no evidence of contamination.
That's not enough to convince some researchers that this genetic modification, not cleared for commercial sale, won't be found in some wheat seeds.
"We don't know where in the whole chain it is," said Carol Mallory-Smith, the weed science professor at Oregon State University who tested the initial wheat plants and determined they were a genetic variety Monsanto had tested. "I don't know how Monsanto can declare anything. We obviously had these plants in the field."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating how the wheat showed up eight years after the company ended field tests. It was found growing on about 1 percent of the farmer's 125-acre field, and he submitted it to Oregon State for testing after an application of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide didn't kill it.
The discovery prompted Japan and South Korea to suspend some U.S. wheat purchases, and a Kansas farmer alleged in a federal lawsuit filed this week that Monsanto damaged the market for his crop.
Nigeria, the third-biggest buyer of U.S. wheat, has no plans to alter purchases because of the Oregon incident, the country's agriculture minister, Akinwumi Adesina, said Thursday. The world's seventh most-populous nation has passed a law allowing such crops, pending the president's signature.
St. Louis-based Monsanto's $13.5 billion of annual sales are anchored in corn and other crops genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup, the world's best selling herbicide. These Roundup Ready plants are widely grown in the U.S. because they allow farmers to kill weeds without harming the crop.
The company's tests show the genetically modified variety isn't present in the types of seeds planted on the Oregon farm or in the wheat seed typically grown in Oregon and Washington, Robb Fraley, the company's chief technology officer, said Wednesday on a call with reporters.
"It seems likely to be a random, isolated occurrence more consistent with the accidental or purposeful mixing of a small amount of seed during the planting, harvesting or during the fallow cycle in an individual field," Fraley said.
Scientists say they are befuddled about how this wheat could have gotten into the field after so many years.
"We can't come up with any great logical explanation for what happened," Mallory-Smith said in an interview. "You introduce something into the environment, and genes move around in the environment, whether transgenic or not."
Norman Ellstrand, a genetic researcher at the University of California, Riverside, said the genetic crossing likely occurred "upstream."
One of the farmer's seed lots probably had been contaminated, he said before Monsanto released its findings Wednesday. "There is a reasonable likelihood that wasn't the only bag that was mixed."