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Time delay a big part of biotech mystery, wheat breeder says

It’s hard to figure out how biotech wheat recently discovered in northeast Oregon might have escaped detection for so long before now, Oregon State University’s wheat breeder says.

“What makes this such a big challenge is the time delay between when the last time material was in the field and when it was discovered,” Bob Zemetra said. “(It) raises interesting questions about how something like this could occur.”

If the biotech wheat escaped from trials in 2000-2001, Zemetra said the industry would have seen something before now.

The question is whether the biotech wheat got into a seed source, either through a pollen outcross or a direct seed contamination, both of which have problems as scenarios, he said.

Wheat is not like corn, which outcrosses a lot and raises concerns about issues of gene flow.

Wheat is a self-pollinating crop and has less than 1 percent outcrossing, Zemetra said. There would need to be a relatively short distance between the affected field and the source for pollen outcrossing, and most trials had large buffer zones.

Outcrossing requires plants to be flowering at the same time and close enough in proximity for the pollen to reach a female plant.

A direct seed contamination would also be difficult, since the system is closely managed.

“If it was a contaminant, why didn’t we see it sooner?” Zemetra said.

Zemetra believes the occurrence was accidental. If it occurred by pollen outcrossing, it was random chance, he said. If it was a mix, something happened to accidentally cause the mix, he said.

He expects to know more as the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s investigation continues.

OSU is working on recommendations for growers to potentially “add a layer of insurance” and minimize the “very low” risk of an issue when planting in the fall if growers want to be sure they’re not going to introduce an issue or suspect they might have had a problem, Zemetra said.

His recommendation will depend on what APHIS finds, Zemetra said. If investigators find the source of the biotech wheat, then the industry can begin determining the exposure and make more specific recommendations.

Jim Moyer, Washington State University Agriculture Research Center director and associate dean of research, said his university is focusing on reducing concerns of trading partners. WSU is working to develop a strategy to test materials to satisfy them it’s not a pervasive problem in Washington agriculture.

Until more is known about the specific wheat variety and where it was found, it would be “rampant speculation,” Moyer said.

“It could be anything — or nothing,” he said.

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