The accidental release of forbidden GMO wheat in Huntley could have been catastrophic

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.

HUNTLEY — There’s truth in advertising when it comes to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. “Roundup: kills weeds to the root,” goes the slogan for the kill-all herbicide.

It pretty much kills any plant, including trees in the right dosage, and when it didn’t destroy a rogue wheat crop in the test fields of the MSU’s Southern Agricultural Research Center in Huntley, scientists were worried.

“Roundup Ready” wheat was a genetically-modified food idea that didn’t take root with consumers. The wheat, genetically modified to survive Roundup herbicide, was equated by opponents with herbicide-tainted food.

Its critics labeled it “frankenwheat” and easily won the message war with consumers weary of other Roundup Ready crops like corn, sugar beets, soybeans and rice, all of which have been deemed safe by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Research on genetically-modified wheat in Montana and 16 other states abruptly halted a decade ago. The USDA never certified the wheat as safe for planting. MSU researchers destroyed their GMO wheat by turning it into the ground in 2003.

Then, 10 years later, Roundup Ready wheat started unexpectedly turning up, or “volunteering,” as plant scientists say. First at an Oregon farm in 2013, where a farmer spraying his field into chemical fallow discovered Roundup Ready wheat plants thriving as other plant matter slowly died.

Countries like Japan and South Korea began immediately blocking ships of U.S. wheat from unloading, as soon as the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, the plant police of the federal government, announced the Oregon discovery. It was an economic disaster.

The banned wheat then turned up in Huntley at the Southern Agricultural Research Center in 2014.

In Oregeon, APHIS "ran rather roughshod, in my opinion, in releasing that information over to the industry, which resulted in a catastrophic crash of commodity prices for soft white wheat that lasted for weeks, maybe months,” said Ken Kephart, the superintendent of MSU’s research centers.

When his weed scientist told him there was wheat thriving among the dying weeds of the Southern Agricultural Research Center, Kephart told him to up the Roundup dose and try again. The second attempt failed, too, according to an APHIS report of investigation made public this month.

APHIS concluded that Monsanto and MSU failed to immediately notify the USDA about the rogue Huntley plants, which numbered 1,000 or more. Monsanto told investigators it wasn’t even sure the wheat was Roundup Ready wheat.

Investigators reported that MSU officials — who alerted Monsanto, not the federal government — weren't sure sure the wheat was actually Roundup resistant and were concerned USDA would shut down the research center.

“It should be noted that MSU disagrees” that it should have notified the government first, the university said in a written response to The Gazette. “Based on our contracts with Monsanto, it was our obligation to inform them. Monsanto was the link to USDA, APHIS, which regulated the trials.”

MSU mowed down the rogue wheat crop as soon at it suspected the plants were from genetically-modified wheat. Researchers did so to prevent the plants from producing seeds. They ran their own tests and then called Monsanto, which did its own tests and contacted the USDA a week later.

It’s questionable whether the USDA regulated any trials of genetically-modified crops in Huntley. Kephart said the 30 to 40 APHIS investigators who showed up in Huntley in 2014 were the first to visit the center.

No one from the federal government inspected the Roundup Ready wheat research while it was taking place from 2000 to 2003. And, no one from the federal government visited after the experiments were over to make sure the banned crop wasn’t resurfacing.

In its report, APHIS said investigators couldn’t tell how many years the Roundup Ready wheat grew unnoticed. However, it is possible the genetically-engineered wheat laid dormant for 11 years or more and then sprouted, said Richard Bell, an APHIS spokesman.

“Under the environmental conditions in this part of the country, low moisture, and temperature, and the agronomic practices being used, specific irrigation, tillage, and herbicide use, it is well documented in the scientific literature that wheat seed can remain viable for many years in the soil,” Bell said. “USDA concluded that these volunteers represented a small, persistent population of the GE wheat following the authorized field trials.

APHIS would have known for sure, had it been actively engaged in the research it regulates. But the government is fairly hands off when it comes to GMO research, said Bill Freese of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety.

The Center is a national non-profit public interest group that's had success suing USDA for not thoroughly vetting GMO crops.

“In these field trials, it’s pretty much the company can do what it wants. APHIS has performance standards. They don’t prescribe rules,” Freese said.

In 2007, the Center for Food Safety convinced a federal judge to block the sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa because the USDA had approved the crop without doing a full study on the plant’s environmental effects. The ruling also blocked a Billings-area farmer from raising genetically modified alfalfa seed until the study was done.

The Supreme Court eventually lifted the ban, but the USDA still had to go back and complete the environmental study.

In 2010, the Center convinced a federal court that USDA errred again by allowing Roundup Ready sugar beets to be planted without a full environmental impact study. The lawsuit centered on the danger of cross breeding with non-GMO beets. Initially, the court considered blocking the beets from being planted until the study was done. The oversight nearly cost Montana’s $100 million sugar beet industry an entire growing season.

The Center petitioned the court in 2004 to block approval of Roundup Ready wheat until the USDA studied the effects of the crop on the environment and the economy. One of the Center's clients was an Eastern Montana farmer worried about GMO crossbreeding with his own wheat.

“Imagine, if USDA was more interested in preventing things like this. It could have strong prescribed methods that could be effective,” Freese said. “People at SARC would take them more seriously.”

SARC in Huntley does takes APHIS’s authority seriously. But, after seeing the agency in action, Kephart questions its methods.

In the weeks APHIS spent on the ground at SARC, investigators focused on the research facility’s machinery as the likely cause of spreading the rogue wheat. According to its report, APHIS considered whether SARC farm equipment accidentally dredged up the buried GMO wheat and then tracked it across the research facility. Investigators even faulted SARC employees for not cleaning their equipment well enough after watching them clean a combine three times while leaving traces of plant matter behind.

But tests on 30 pieces of the research center’s equipment tested negative for Roundup Ready wheat.

Kephart offered a different source for the grain spread: animals. Standing with an APHIS investigator in a field where most of the Roundup Ready wheat was found, Kephart noticed the highest concentration was beneath an overhead powerline. And on that powerline, a cadre of pigeons perched doing what pigeons are known for — pooping.

“I repeatedly mentioned that I thought this had been moved by the intervention of some animal, whether it be rodents or birds, or deer or raccoons. We have stuff moving across the landscape here all the time,” Kephart said. “You watch a pheasant, they’ll go down a row and they’ll fill their craw with seed and then they fly off to who knows.

"So, I brought this up to the (APHIS) guy. And I mentioned ‘Why are you not considering this and he said ‘We simply don't have a protocol to evaluate that risk. Therefore, it doesn’t exist.’”

By TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com Aug 28, 2016