U.S. reveals second instance of unapproved GM wheat

(Reuters) — Monsanto Co.’s experimental genetically engineered wheat, never approved for sale, has been found growing in a second U.S. state, and regulators said on Friday they could not explain how the plants escaped field trials that ended almost a decade ago.

Roughly a year after the discovery of the company’s unapproved wheat in a single Oregon field disrupted U.S. wheat export sales, the GMO wheat has also been found in Montana, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said on Friday.

APHIS launched an investigation into the Montana incident on July 14, said Bernadette Juarez, director of investigative and enforcement services for APHIS.

The wheat was found growing at a research facility for Montana State University in Huntley, Montana, where field trials of Monsanto’s wheat were conducted between 2000 and 2003, she said in a news conference.

After conclusion of field trials, crop developers like Monsanto are obligated to inform regulators of any “volunteers,” or plants that grow on their own following a previous harvest, Juarez said.

USDA officials said there are no health and safety concerns from Monsanto GMO wheat, and that they do not believe the wheat has entered commerce. The area where the wheat was found primarily produces sugar beets and barley, not wheat, Juarez said.

The varieties of wheat found in Montana and Oregon differ significantly, but both contain Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant trait.

There is no commercially approved genetically modified wheat. The wheat in question was developed by Monsanto to withstand treatments of its Roundup weed killer, but the company never commercialized the “Roundup Ready” wheat because international buyers threatened to boycott U.S. wheat if the product was introduced to the marketplace.

Monsanto said in 2004 that it would end efforts to commercialize the wheat, and the grain was supposed to have been destroyed or stored securely.

Monsanto and several other companies are still trying to develop a biotech wheat acceptable to the market. APHIS said on Friday it was stepping up oversight of those field trials.

Word of the wheat in Montana comes after last year’s discovery by an Oregon farmer of the GMO wheat in his field. That discovery prompted South Korea and Japan to temporarily halt purchases of U.S. wheat due to fears of contamination.

APHIS said on Friday that despite a “comprehensive” investigation, the agency has not determined how the biotech wheat came to grow in the farmer’s field. No field trials were ever authorized on the Oregon farm.

Juarez said there would not be any penalties or disciplinary action against Monsanto for the Oregon incident.

Several farmers have sued Monsanto, however, accusing the company of failing to protect the market from contamination by its approved wheat.

The parties are in settlement talks, Monsanto said on Friday. Monsanto officials had no immediate comment on the Montana case.

Monsanto has said in the past that it takes the “stewardship and safety of all its products very seriously.”

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