GMO Wheat: How Odd That Stray Wheat Gene Seems June 7, 2013
By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau
When I study the details of the GMO wheat in Oregon, I scratch my head (yes, I know, the science mind doesn’t take over quickly for me). The news broke in expected fear mongering fashion as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported the detection of Roundup Ready® wheat earlier this week in a single field in Oregon.
To better understand the circumstances surrounding the situation I listed details in bullets (because my rational mind assesses it better this way). Things seem odd.
Specific to the glyphosate-resistant gene (and to give me my mental framework on this issue) …
- The Roundup Ready or glyphosate-resistant gene (currently widely used in multiple crops such as corn and cotton and by millions of farmers globally) has been extensively reviewed and approved by regulatory authorities in every country around the world to which crops containing that gene have been submitted for cultivation or import approval, including Japan, Korea and the EU.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2004 confirmed a voluntary consultation on the food and feed safety of Roundup Ready wheat more than a decade ago.
- Glyphosate-resistant wheat was field tested from 1998 through 2005. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) authorized more than 100 field tests with specific glyphosate-resistant wheat variety in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming.
- However, biotech or genetically modified wheat is not currently authorized for commercial sale or planting in any country. Possibly, as Arizona wheat farmer and Arizona Farm Bureau’s First Vice President Tim Dunn says, “When the advantage of biotech is expressly found in consumer benefits it will quickly become sought after rather than opposed. The benefits will help the grower through expanded market share or possibly higher prices from better shelf life.”
- Monsanto’s process for closing out the Roundup Ready wheat program was rigorous, well-documented and audited, according to various regulating bodies.
To help me frame the pollination issue as it relates to wheat and location of the discovered GM wheat…
- Wheat is mostly a self-pollinating plant; research highlights that 99% of wheat pollen moves less than 30 feet from its source.
- Plant and seed experts suggest that neither seed left in the soil nor wheat pollen flow serve as a reasonable explanation behind this reported detection on an Oregon farm because of wheat pollen’s limited ability to pollinate at far distances.
- USDA’s report identifies Monsanto’s near decade-old Roundup Ready wheat trait had been found in a single field in Oregon (an identified state of former field test plots, though nowhere near this field where the stray or “volunteers” were found).
- Accordingly, while USDA’s results are unexpected, there is considerable reason to believe that the presence of the Roundup Ready trait in wheat, if determined to be valid, is very limited.
- Again, the Oregon field where the “volunteers” were discovered was not a prior test site where the Roundup Ready wheat trait under investigation was reported to have been present.
- The USDA’s findings are based solely on testing samples from a single 125-acre field, on one farm in Oregon, which overwintered from the previous growing season.
- Based on current reports, USDA stresses that it has no evidence that the original Roundup Ready wheat trait has actually entered commerce.
- Researchers, both in the public and private sectors, acknowledge that the viability of wheat seed — which on average lasts 1 to 2 years in the soil – could also be in question if it came from the test seed of nearly a decade ago.
- Over the past decade, an annual average of 58 million acres of wheat has been planted in the United States.
- This is the first report of the Roundup Ready trait being found out of place since Monsanto’s commercial wheat development program was discontinued nine years ago.
- Monsanto notes that this report is unusual since the program was discontinued nine years ago, and this is the only report after more than 500 million acres of wheat have been grown.
- 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.
To understand APHIS oversight role in this issue …
- APHIS is conducting an investigation to determine how this situation occurred.
- USDA is working to make available a validated test in case some of the U.S.’s trading partners want further reassurance that this product is not in commerce.
- APHIS has tested DNA extracted from tissue from the stray wheat plants collected in the field.
Personally, as of right now, it just seems odd to me that some lab samples of this Roundup Ready resistant wheat would turn up in an Oregon farm field when it’s so hard for wheat to cross-pollinate beyond a 30-foot pollen drift. And, that this would occur after nearly a decade shut-down of Monsanto’s efforts to produce biotech wheat.
Monsanto has created a Wheat resource page for anyone to keep track of the issue.
Continuing to watch this unfold will be interesting.
Sources: USDA’s APHIS, Monsanto public statements on the issue, news reports and discussion with wheat farmers and industry experts.