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GE wheat – a mystery fit for Sherlock Holmes

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  • USDA and Monsanto continue to investigate how GE wheat got into a field in Oregon.
  • Two questions remain unanswered. Was there a saboteur? And if there was, how did this person acquire genetically-engineered seed?

As you’ve probably heard, USDA/APHIS has found that volunteer wheat plants in an Oregon field contained Monsanto’s genetically-engineered trait for glyphosate resistance. GE wheat is not approved for production or sale anywhere in the world.

The discovery occurred about the same time as GMO labeling received approval in Connecticut and just before news broke of a prank GMO label affixed to a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese on a grocery store shelf in London, England.

Needless to say, biotechnology companies had to scramble to counteract the misinformation that soon spread.

But the lingering question is how GE wheat got into the field in the first place. It occurred almost a decade after Monsanto stopped field testing GE wheat and underwent rigorous procedures to ensure that none of the experimental wheat was unaccounted for, including samples sent to USDA for safekeeping.

Can this mystery be explained?

“Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” said Sherlock Holmes, the fictitious father of deductive reasoning.

So how would old Sherlock approach this case?

There are only a few ways the seed could have appeared in the field. It, or its progeny, had been there all along; it was deposited inadvertently by some natural force; the wheat seed supply was contaminated; or human hands were responsible.

It is very unlikely that wheat seed had been sitting dormant in the soil all this time, since wheat seed loses its viability to germinate within a couple of years. Besides, the field according to the Oregon farmer’s attorney, was apparently was not involved in previous GE wheat testing.

Could wind have blown in the seed from another source? Monsanto’s comprehensive testing of wheat varieties currently in the marketplace has so far indicated no presence of the GE trait, indicating that this was likely the one and only incident. Nor were the GE plants in a pattern, meaning GE seed was not inadvertently mixed with planting seed.

To Monsanto, the incident is “suspicious,” and I tend to agree, albeit cautiously.

If there is a saboteur, which is one possibility, Sherlock would first investigate whether Monsanto’s tightly-controlled chain of custody of wheat seed was compromised. If this seems unlikely, could someone with Professor Moriarty-like abilities have created GE wheat seed independently of a biotechnology company?

It seems a bit out there, but Sherlock certainly would not rule it out at this stage.

There are still things we don’t know, such as the variety, or even the class, of the GE wheat, nor a solid confirmation on whether the field was involved in previous GE testing. But when all the facts are in, and the full weight of science and deductive reasoning applied, the answer, hopefully, will be elementary.

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