(Reuters) - For global consumers now on high alert over a rogue strain of genetically modified wheat found in Oregon, the question is simple: How could this happen? For a cadre of critics of biotech crops, the question is different: How could it not?
The questions arose after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday that it was investigating the mysterious appearance of experimental, unapproved genetically engineered wheat plants on a farm in Oregon. The wheat was developed years ago by Monsanto Co to tolerate its Roundup herbicide, but the world's largest seed company scrapped the project and ended all field trials in 2004.
"These requirements are leaky and there is just no doubt about that. There is a fundamental problem with the system," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists who served on a biotech advisory subcommittee for the Food and Drug Administration from 2002 to 2005.
The discovery instantly roiled export markets, with Japan canceling a major shipment of wheat, a quick reminder of what is at stake - an $8 billion U.S. wheat export business.
Many fear the wheat most likely has been mixed in with conventional wheat for some time, but there are no valid commercial tests to verify whether wheat contains the biotech Roundup Ready gene.
"A lot of people are on high alert now," said Mike Flowers, a cereal specialist at Oregon State University. "We can't really say if it is or isn't in other fields. We don't know."
A month has passed since U.S. authorities first were alerted to the suspect plants in Oregon, yet it remains unclear how the strain developed. Monsanto officials said it is likely the presence of the Roundup Ready genetic trait in wheat supplies is "very limited." The company is conducting "a rigorous investigation" to find out how much, if any, wheat has been contaminated by their biotech variety. U.S. regulators are also investigating.
Bob Zemetra, one of the Oregon State University wheat researchers who first tested the mystery wheat when an unnamed farmer mailed a plant sample, said there is no easy way to explain the sudden appearance of the strain years after field tests ended.
Cross-pollination seems unlikely, Zemetra said, because the field where the plants were discovered was growing winter wheat, while Monsanto had field tested spring wheat. There hadn't been any test sites in the area since at least 2004, making it unlikely the new genetic strain would have been carried on the wind.
"I don't know that we are ever going to get a straight answer, or a satisfactory answer, on how it got there," Zemetra said.
'RIGOROUS TESTING PROTOCOL'
Government records show Monsanto conducted at least 279 field tests of herbicide-resistant wheat on over 4,000 acres in at least 16 states from 1994 until the company abandoned its field testing of wheat in 2004.
Zemetra participated in Monsanto wheat trials a decade ago, while working as a wheat breeder at the University of Idaho. When Monsanto decided to halt the testing, he said, the company had strict rules about handling test materials.
"Pretty much all that seed, and any program that was using it, either buried it, burned it or shipped it back to Monsanto, as part of the instructions for doing the field testing," he said. "It was a very rigorous testing protocol."
Researchers were requested to watch the plots for "volunteer" growth for at least two years after conclusion of the tests, Zemetra added.
Zemetra first became aware of the wheat found in Oregon when a farmer brought in what he described as several isolated wheat plants that had emerged after he sprayed Roundup on a fallow field in eastern Oregon. The farmer had last harvested a crop of white winter wheat from the field in 2012.
A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2008 highlighted several gaps in regulations designed to prevent genetically altered crops from escaping test plots.
The report's conclusions were based on USDA data that there were 712 violations of its regulations from 2003 to 2007, including 98 that could lead to a possible release of unauthorized crops.