Genetically engineered crops are widespread in the U.S., particularly when it comes to GE corn, soybeans and cotton, but one crop that has not been approved as a genetically modified organism is wheat.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “There are no GE wheat varieties for sale or in commercial production in the United States at this time, as APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] has not deregulated any GE wheat varieties.”1
So why, then, did the USDA recently confirm that unapproved GE wheat plants had been discovered growing in an agricultural field in Washington state?2
Rogue GE wheat discovered in Washington state
One of the inevitable truths about nature is that nothing exists in a bubble, and when GE crops are introduced into the wild, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to contain them. The discovery of GE wheat growing in an unplanted agricultural field in Washington is one unsettling example. The GE wheat, which is resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide, is likely a remnant from a former field trial.
“USDA is collaborating with our state, industry and trading partners, and we are committed to providing all our partners with timely and transparent information about our findings,” the public health agency said in a statement, adding, “There is no evidence that GE wheat has entered the food supply.”3
In the 1990s, Monsanto, which was acquired by Bayer in 2018, developed GE wheat with a trait that makes it resistant to glyphosate. Although the GE wheat never received approval and was not developed commercially, it was evaluated, according to Monsanto, in a limited number of field trials in the Pacific Northwest from 1998 to 2001.4
However, according to a December 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service, the USDA’s APHIS granted Monsanto approval to test GE wheat in about 100 field trials spread throughout 16 states between 1998 and 2005.
What’s more, the GE wheat detected in Washington state is not the first time Monsanto’s GE wheat has shown up in unexpected places. The first time was in 2013, when GE wheat was found in Oregon. While Oregon was one state on the approval list for field trials, the field where the GE wheat was originally detected was not one of the areas used for such trials.5
In fact, it was only detected because a farmer who sprayed his 80-acre field with glyphosate discovered wheat plants that were volunteers (i.e., they came up on their own) and were not killed by glyphosate. He took samples of the wheat plants to Oregon State University, where scientists tested them and found the potential presence of GE glyphosate-tolerance in the plants.
The scientists then notified APHIS, which formally investigated and found the plants were one of Monsanto’s GE glyphosate-tolerant wheat varieties used in field trials.6
In 2014, GE wheat was again discovered, this time in Montana. In 2016, the USDA also confirmed the detection of GE wheat plants — 22 of them in all, which were found in a field in Washington state.7 GE wheat also popped up in Alberta, Canada, in 2018, before most recently making another appearance in Washington state.8
GE wheat contamination could have major trade implications
If GE wheat were to show up in U.S. wheat exports, it could have serious implications for trade. Wheat is a major crop for the U.S., ranking third among field crops, behind only corn and soybeans. In 2018 to 2019 alone, U.S. farmers produced an estimated 1.884 billion bushels of winter, spring and durum wheat, planted on 47.8 million acres of land.9
While the U.S. produces only about 7% of the world’s wheat, it ranks among the top three global wheat exporters.10 However, this would likely change if evidence of GE wheat contamination was found.
Japan, the European Union, South Korea and many other countries have a zero-tolerance policy about importing unapproved GE wheat. When such plants were first detected in Oregon, Japan and South Korea temporarily suspended purchase of U.S. soft white wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest.11
It’s similar to what happened in 2006, when traces of unapproved GE rice were discovered in the U.S. rice harvest. This led to several countries banning U.S. grown rice and exporters lost millions of dollars as a result. Bayer, the company responsible for developing and field testing the GE rice, ended up agreeing to pay $750 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by 11,000 rice farmers.12
As for the rogue GE wheat, in 2014 Monsanto also agreed to pay $250,000 to wheat growers’ associations along with $2.1 million into a settlement fund for farmers of soft white wheat in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.13 Since then, the USDA claims it has strengthened its oversight of GE wheat field trials, noting:14
“After previous detections of GE wheat, USDA strengthened its oversight of regulated GE wheat field trials. APHIS now requires developers to apply for a permit for field trials involving GE wheat beginning with GE wheat planted on or after January 1, 2016.
Bringing GE wheat under permit enables APHIS to create and enforce permit conditions that ensure confinement and minimize the risk that the regulated GE wheat will persist in the environment.”
Concerns with GE wheat
As for why GE wheat has not become a staple crop like GE corn and soy, the USDA cited wheat’s “complex genetics” and consumers’ wariness of GMOs in the food supply:15
“Genetic improvement has been slower for wheat due to the food grain’s significantly more complex genetics and lower potential returns from research investments. Farmers grow wheat primarily for human food use, and U.S. food processors are wary of consumer reaction to products containing genetically modified (GM) wheat. No GM wheat is commercially grown in the United States.”
Already, however, serious concerns have been raised over the creation of GE wheat, including one type developed by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). The wheat, which was altered to silence wheat genes in order to change its carbohydrate content, could match human genes and potentially silence them.16
University of Canterbury professor Jack Heinemann, who led the study, explained at a news conference, “What we found is that the molecules created in this wheat, intended to silence wheat genes, can match human genes, and through ingestion, these molecules can enter human beings and potentially silence our genes. The findings are absolutely assured. There is no doubt that these matches exist.”17
RNA is one of three major macromolecules, like DNA. Double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) is responsible for regulating a sizable quantity of human genes.
Writing in the journal Environmental International, Heinemann and colleagues explained that while many commercial GE plants are currently created through in vitro DNA modification to create a new protein, some are designed to change their RNA content in order to regulate gene expression.
The technique, known as RNA interference or RNA knockdown, essentially turns off or “knocks down” certain genes, raising the potential for serious risks:18
“While some GMOs have been designed to make new dsRNA molecules, in other GMOs such molecules may occur as a side-effect of the genetic engineering process. Still others may make naturally-occurring dsRNA molecules in higher or lower quantities than before. Some dsRNA molecules can have profound physiological effects on the organism that makes them.
Physiological effects are the intended outcomes of exposure to dsRNA incorporated into food sources for invertebrates; biopesticides and other topically applied products, and could be the cause of off-target effects and adverse effects in non-target organisms. ‘A daunting outcome is raised, that each [dsRNA] formulation might have its own risks.’
… Production of intended dsRNA molecules may also have off-target effects due to silencing genes other than those intended. Unanticipated off-target adverse effects can be difficult to detect and they are not possible to reliably predict using bioinformatics techniques. Regulatory bodies are not adequately assessing the risks of dsRNA-producing GM products.”
Frankenfish arrive in US
In November 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved AquaBounty salmon, a GE “frankenfish” that is engineered to grow about twice as fast as typical farm-raised salmon, a feat achieved by inserting the DNA from two other fish, a growth-promoting gene from a Chinook salmon and a “promoter” gene from the eel-like ocean pout.
This genetic tweaking results in fish with always-on growth hormone, and because they grow so much faster than other salmon, they also require less food. The GE fish have already been sold and eaten in Canada,19 but a rider attached to an Alaskan budget bill imposed an import ban, effectively blocking the FDA from allowing GE salmon into the U.S.
The import ban was lifted by the FDA in March 2019, with FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb stating, “[T]his fish is safe to eat, the genetic construct added to the fish’s genome is safe for the animal, and the manufacturer’s claim that it reaches a growth marker important to the aquaculture industry more rapidly than its non-GE farm-raised Atlantic salmon counterpart is confirmed.20
AquaBounty, meanwhile, acquired a fish farm in Albany, Indiana, where eggs intended to grow the first GE salmon for human consumption in the U.S. arrived in May 2019. AquaBounty plans to begin harvesting the GE salmon in late 2020.21 In 2013 a New York Times poll revealed that 75 percent of respondents would not eat GE fish and 93 percent said such foods should be labeled as such.22
Frankenfish to be called ‘bioengineered’
As for labeling, the USDA included AquaBounty’s salmon on a list of foods that must be labeled “bioengineered” (BE), which only refers to a food that has had another organism’s genes spliced into it by a process called transgenesis. Other types of genetic engineering do not need to be labeled at all.
As noted by The Non-GMO Project executive director Megan Westgate, the USDA’s GMO labeling law “jeopardizes GMO transparency for Americans:”23
“In its current form, categorical exemptions prevent this law from delivering the meaningful protections Americans deserve. Highly processed ingredients, many products of new genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR and TALEN, and many meat and dairy products will not require disclosure.”
More than 80 retailers, including Aldi, Costco, Kroger and Meijer, have policies against selling GE seafood, and tribal communities have also spoken out against the GE fish, which were created without any tribal consultations. As reported by Friends of the Earth, Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, stated:24
“The FDA’s unilateral decision, without tribal consultation, is an alarming signal that our sacred and prized wild salmon is now even more vulnerable to external markets and ecological threats. It’s unconscionable and arrogant to think man can improve upon our Creator’s perfection in wild salmon as a justification and excuse to satisfy corporate ambition and greed.”
How to opt out of GMOs in your food
If you’re wondering how can you tell whether salmon is wild or farm-raised, the flesh of wild sockeye salmon is bright red, courtesy of its natural astaxanthin content. It’s also very lean, so the fat marks, those white stripes you see in the meat, are very thin. If the fish is pale pink with wide fat marks, the salmon is farmed.
Avoid Atlantic salmon, as typically salmon labeled “Atlantic Salmon” currently come from fish farms, as well as “bioengineered salmon.” As for wheat, there’s currently no GE wheat being commercially sold, although contamination is possible. However, be aware that glyphosate is commonly used as a desiccant on many non-GMO crops, including wheat.
In northern, colder regions farmers of wheat and barley must wait for their crops to dry out prior to harvest. Rather than wait an additional two weeks or so for this to happen naturally, farmers realized they could spray the plants with glyphosate, killing the crop and accelerating their drying (a process known as desiccating).
As such, non-GMO foods may be even more contaminated with glyphosate than GMO crops, because they’re being sprayed just weeks before being made into your cereal, bread, cookies and the like.25 In order to avoid a dose of glyphosate residue in your wheat products, choose only organic or biodynamically grown wheat.
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