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So Much For No GMO Wheat

May 31, 2013

You have to love the timing. On Wednesday I was commiserating with a reader who was fed up with uninformed anti-science GMO protesters. The reader cited activist claims about GMO wheat when there is no GMO wheat.

Then guess what happened on Thursday?

There was a big news story about GMO wheat being found in a field in Oregon. It was in The New York Times, the USDA has a press release on it, and before the end of the day Japan had cancelled a tender to buy US wheat on the heels of the news. You see, even though most of America doesn’t care that much about what they eat, the same is not true for the rest of the world. Even China labels GMOs.

Let’s get something straight before we go any further. This isn’t a post about inciting panic. I’m confident that there is no imminent public safety concern. However, this incident shines a light on some important and prickly issues surrounding genetically engineered crops, some of their problems, and the real negative impact they can have on American agriculture.

That said, it’s reasonable to be concerned. After all, GMO wheat has never been approved for commercial production. This is why I supported the claim on Wednesday that there is no GMO wheat. Monsanto had been testing GMO wheat, but abandoned the project in 2004. And according to the New York Times, “The last field test of that type of wheat in Oregon was in 2001.”

Here is what nobody is explicitly asking. How can something appear twelve years after it was removed from the fields? And if its not really gone in Oregon, which of the other 15 states where it was tested continue to grow this transgenic plant unbeknownst to everyone involved?

And that is precisely the problem with GE crops.

For starters, they look exactly like their conventionally grown siblings. After all, it’s just a gene or two that have been modified. The wheat in Oregon was only identified after the farmer tried to clear the land with some RoundUp and the wheat wouldn’t die.

But as living things they naturally propagate. And if you can’t see the difference between GMO wheat and non-GMO wheat, once the GMO version has been introduced into the ecosystem, how can you ever be certain what you’ve got without genetic testing.

Are you ready for the funny part?

Below is what Monsanto has to say themselves about the difficulty of testing for GMO wheat. This comes from their own press release about the incident in Oregon. It’s priceless:

The necessary testing requires sophisticated methods, considerable expertise and meticulous laboratory techniques to generate reliable results. Commercial test strips, which are used to detect the presence of glyphosate tolerance in soybeans, canola, cotton and sugar beets, generate a very high incidence of false positive detections (greater than 90 percent) and are not reliable for wheat. We have asked for information necessary to confirm the presence of the Roundup Ready trait in the samples that were tested. Up to this point, Monsanto has not received details about the testing USDA has performed, nor has USDA provided us with samples necessary to verify their findings.

So if we are to believe them, the only lab that’s competent for reliably testing Monsanto Roundup Ready wheat is Monsanto’s, presumably using the expertise held by Monsanto scientists.

And since the last time this happened to Bayer CropScience with their unapproved GMO rice being released into the food supply the company was on the hook for $750 million, why would Monsanto have any incentive to be less than diligent in their “verification” of the USDA findings.

Look. It’s entirely possible that this is an isolated incident.

But there is a lot of trust involved in the buying of food from other countries. In 2012 a little less than half of our domestic wheat crop was sold overseas. And there is a rising global intolerance for GMO crops. The rest of the world is also becoming more aware of the close relationship enjoyed between Monsanto and the U.S. Government.

So I think it’s safe to say while domestically this story may not make a lot of headlines, the rest of the world will be watching to see how this investigation plays out. And trust only goes so far. Reuters reports, “The European Union said it would test incoming U.S. white wheat shipments for GMO content.”

Given Monsanto’s statement above, I have to wonder if they are bracing for that, “Very high incidence of false positive detections.”

Maybe, just maybe, the pending financial implications of this wheat snafu will give the US regulators and legislators some pause and cause them to reconsider the fast tracking of approvals for open air testing and the forward march of a technology that is apparently not as manageable as its proponents would like to believe.

One Comment leave one →
  1. docsconz permalink
    June 5, 2013 2:28 pm

    I didn’t have time to comment to the comment on the other post, but it misses the point about the alleged “anti-Science” stance of Monsanto opponents. Sure, some may be anti-science for its own sake and maybe there aren’t good studies proving the dangers of GMO products, but that is the wrong approach. It should be up to Monsanto to prove that they are safe just as it is up to Pharma to prove that its drugs carry no undue risks. In the meantime individuals should be able to decide what risks they are or are not willing to take..

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