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Scientists Unswayed by Monsanto

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 the 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 last 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 in an interview Thirsday in Washington. The world’s seventh most-populous nation has passed a law allowing such crops, pending the president’s signature.

The 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 on the call.

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 that wasn’t the only bag that was mixed.”

After Monsanto’s presentation, he added: It’s “hard to say whether the entire U.S. wheat seed supply has zero transgenes, but obviously, if present, the transgenes are at a very low level.”

Some Monsanto opponents may have planted seeds they obtained without authorization from a field trial to cause trade disruptions and build opposition to gene-altered food, said Val Giddings, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit think tank.

“What we are starting to do is knock down all the competing possibilities, and one of those that remain standing, the sore thumb sticking up, involves something deliberate,” said Giddings, who helped regulate engineered crops at the USDA for eight years in the 1990s.

Monsanto hasn’t ruled out sabotage, Fraley said.

For the world’s largest seedmaker, targeted by global protests over genetically modified foods, the biggest risks are likely to be from farmers confronting export restrictions. Farmers balked at Monsanto’s research into a genetically modified wheat for that reason, and the company had disbanded its research of this variety in 2005.

All of the tested seeds were either destroyed or recovered and sent to a USDA facility in Colorado for storage, the company said. Because these Roundup-resistant plants existed on only one of two of the farmer’s fields and haven’t popped up in other farms since 2005, the occurrence is either “inadvertent or purposeful mixing of seed,” Fraley said.

It’s that jump that independent scientists question.

“Sure they tested it, but that doesn’t mean it’s all clean,” David Andow, a professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota, said in an interview. “It just means it’s not so widespread that it could be detected easily.”

In previous cases, such as during the outbreak of herbicide-resistant weeds in recent years, Monsanto has initially played down the risks, said Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, a group critical of Monsanto’s research.

“The reality is that nobody knows what happened until extensive testing is done,” he said.