It's Not Just Monsanto's Genetically Engineered Wheat: You May Already Be Eating Rogue GE Crops
Photo Credit: Thomas Bethge/ Shutterstock.com
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
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.