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Food

It's Not Just Monsanto's Genetically Engineered Wheat: You May Already Be Eating Rogue GE Crops

Can humans control and contain genetically engineered crops? The answer appears to be no.

Photo Credit: Thomas Bethge/ Shutterstock.com

Of the four major crops grown in the U.S., genetically engineered (GE) seeds are available for three: corn, soybeans and alfalfa. But a farmer growing the fourth major crop, wheat, could not (legally) plant GE seeds even if he wanted to. The biotech giant Monsanto did develop a variety of GE wheat years ago, but never sold it commercially because the wheat industry felt its customers did not want it.

In theory, the last of this GE wheat ever planted in Oregon, where Monsanto carried out some of its field trials, was in 2001. But an Oregon farmer just discovered that same wheat growing in his field this year.

The discovery of the unauthorized wheat has thrown the industry into chaos. Japan and South Korea suspended their wheat imports from the Pacific Northwest. A Kansas farmer is suing Monsanto for harming the entire wheat industry with its negligence. What no one can explain is how the GE wheat got into the farmer's field – although Monsanto assures us that this is an “isolated event.”

But is it?

The discovery of genetically engineered wheat in Oregon poses an important question: Can humans control and contain genetically engineered crops?

Jack Heinemann, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and the director of the Center for Integrated Research in Biosafety, says we can’t. “I think there is a way for humans to determine if [genetically engineered crops] are safe enough to be used, which is different from saying that they can be contained,” he says. “There’s no evidence that they can be contained, and there is considerable evidence that we cannot contain them.”

With that, he lists several famous incidents of GE crops popping up where they are not supposed to, like the incident with Liberty Link Rice, a GE rice variety that showed up in rice exported to France in 2006 even though it was never commercialized. Or there’s the StarLink Corn fiasco, when a type of GE corn unapproved for human consumption was found in Taco Bell taco shells. And genes from rogue GE corn have even reached the birthplace of corn: Mexico.

Heinemann is familiar with Monsanto’s escaped GE wheat. Anticipating it would commercialize the GE wheat within a few years, Monsanto had applied to the governments of Australia and New Zealand to approve it in their countries back in 2004. Heinemann worked on a risk assessment for the wheat in New Zealand, until Monsanto withdrew the application. Monsanto ended field trials for the wheat in 2005, and no safety determination was ever made on the wheat.

Here in the U.S., the FDA concluded that Monsanto concluded its GE wheat was safe. Yes, you read that right. (According to the FDA “It is Monsanto's continued responsibility to ensure that foods marketed by the firm are safe, wholesome, and in compliance with all applicable legal and regulatory requirements.”) But now that the escaped wheat has come to light, Monsanto assures us that “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed the food and feed safety of Roundup Ready wheat more than a decade ago.”

Clearly, a more honest statement would be “We told the FDA that our wheat was safe and they believed us.”

After the field trials for the GE wheat ended, “This thing should have gone away,” says Heinemann. “For it to appear in Oregon years after [Monsanto] pulled it from development is concerning. Because it says we don’t know how many field trials – and there have been thousands of field trials of genetically modified crops that have never come to market – that might be circulating in the food supply.” Nor do we know if they are safe.

Before farmers can plant any GE crop, the crops undergo years of field trials. If the field trials are successful and the company wishes to go forward, it applies for deregulation – legalization – of its crop. The U.S. government has deregulated a little over 100 varieties of genetically engineered crops. And only a fraction of those are actually grown commercially and sold into our food supply. But these 100 or so deregulated crops represent only a fraction of the genetically engineered crops that are field-tested.

Following the end of field trials, unless a GE crop is destined for commercialization, it is supposed to go away. If Monsanto had intended to take its GE wheat to market, it would have had to develop a test kit to test for the presence of its genes in wheat, and the government would have assessed its impact on the environment and the risk that the wheat could become a “plant pest.” The European Union even requires companies to develop a monitoring plan for crops that are grown commercially. But when a company decides to call it quits on a crop it is field-testing, none of these steps are taken. The crop, essentially, disappears.

Heinemann is worried about the presence of these field-tested-but-never-commercialized GE crops in our food supply. As far back as 2002, a study from the Canadian province of Saskatchewan reported, “Industry sources estimate that in 2000 in the Saskatchewan region of Canada alone, more than 300,000 acres of wheat were planted with unregistered or obsolete plant varieties. Exports by volume are composed of some varieties that have not been, or are no longer, approved for release in Canada. Regionally across western Canada, wheat exports contain 0.6-2.4% of these unregistered or obsolete varieties.”

“Who is monitoring the safety of these products, or the unanticipated crosses that they may make during their long period of recycling in the agroecosystem?” Heinemann asks. 

The GE wheat was easy to find because it was engineered to be “Roundup Ready.” That is, it can survive being sprayed with Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup. In fact, the farmer discovered it because he sprayed it with Roundup and it did not die.

“In the case of something like Roundup Ready, the trait is an obvious one that we can detect because we can use a herbicide on it to see it,” says Heinemann. “But in the case of pharma crops [engineered to produce pharmaceuticals] or crops that have been genetically engineered to produce an industrial compound that could be toxic or a crop that was designed to be nutritionally altered, those products are not obvious and you can't detect them and probably would not be obvious until they were causing harm."

Elaborating on his concerns about pharma crops, he quotes a 2007 article in Nature, calling it prophetic. It reads:

“Since 1991, the USDA has approved nearly 400 field tests of crops that produce pharmaceutical and industrial compounds, leaving many concerned that future escapes could have severe consequences for human health. A close call came in 2002, when stalks of corn designed to produce a pig vaccine were found mixed with $2.7-million worth of Nebraska soya beans destined for human consumption. Prodigene, the corn's maker, was fined $250,000 and forced to buy and destroy the soya beans."

Can you believe we were that close to having corn laced with a pig vaccine in our food supply?

Heinemann feels that “a variety that produced a pharmaceutical or industrial compound, or had an alteration to its nutritional qualities that were of concern to some people, would likely never be detected prior to causing harm. And if they were to cause harm, the diagnoses of the cause would likely remain a mystery because of how difficult it would be to both detect the genetically engineered crop and then link it with the effect.”

As history has shown, laws cannot contain GE crops. “They can only punish people for having failed to follow the law,” Heinemann says. “And you can't punish a wheat plant or a corn plant, so the laws don't necessarily have a biological relevance.”

What should we do about the potential for escaped, undetected GE crops? Practically speaking, Heinemann encourages concerned citizens to continue focusing on efforts to require labeling of genetically engineered crops. That won’t solve the problem of containing GE crops grown in field tests, but Heinemann is a pragmatist. “I'm not trying to defend these field trials. But if the community is not focused on one big important project, nothing get accomplished.”

However, in a perfect world, he would recommend suspending field trials “until companies and governments revise their biosafety laws.” The laws, he feels, “are not sufficiently transparent and the risk assessments are not sufficiently robust to achieve the kinds of solutions that have been claimed by the regulators.”

In other words, unless the laws are improved, we’ll continue finding – or not finding – unapproved GE crops in our food supply.

Jill Richardson writes about food, agriculture, the environment, health, and well-being. Currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, she’s the author ofRecipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. 

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