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Genetically Modified Wheat Isn't Supposed to Exist. So What Is It Doing in Oregon?


Genetically Modified Wheat Isn't Supposed to Exist. So What Is It Doing in Oregon?

Photograph by Christian Heeb/laif/Redux

(Corrects to note that Monsanto's Roundup is an herbicide to kill weeds.)

Wheat farmers, advocates of food safety, and pretty much anyone who eats bread or noodles have turned their attention to Oregon, where a wheat farmer found a genetically engineered strain of wheat in his otherwise unmodified crop. He couldn’t kill it in any of the normal ways, so he sent it to the lab for testing, which sounds like the set-up for a farm-belt horror movie. The reality has caused alarm of a different sort: Genetically modified wheat hasn’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and unlike corn and soy and other so-called GMO foods, there isn’t supposed to be any genetically modified wheat in the U.S. food supply at all.

There are two reasons to care. Food safety folks lobby hard for labeling of genetically modified foods, saying that the jury is out on the long-term health and environmental effects and consumers deserve to know what they’re buying. The companies that make the seeds say they’re perfectly safe. And for wheat farmers and exporters, this potentially cripples the export market: Many foreign buyers don’t want genetically modified wheat and can switch their buying to Russia, Ukraine, Australia, and other large exporters. Japan reacted quickly, canceling an order today for nearly 25,000 tons of wheat, Bloomberg News reported, and wheat futures dropped on the Chicago Board of Trade.

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is responsible for keeping unapproved GMOs out of the food supply, has begun testing the wheat. In a full-court PR press, the agency has also released a Q&A (PDF) and video to address the issue. Here are a few points to consider:

It’s probably too late to do much about this.

The U.S. has some 1,000 field trials for new gene-altered crops each year, most in multiple sites. The protocols for containing those genes are lax, argue such critics as the Center for Food Safety, which wants a moratorium on field testing of gene-altered crops. ”I would not be at all surprised if there are a number of experimental genes that have contaminated and are happily being passed along at low levels in the food supplies of various crops already, but nobody’s testing,” says Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. “It’s really a ‘don’t look, don’t tell’ situation. We just really don’t know.”

After all, this isn’t the first time.

In 2000, a strain of corn called StarLink, engineered by Aventis (SNY) to kill caterpillars, was found in taco shells. In 2006, Bayer’s (BAYN:GR) LibertyLink experimental rice made its way into the food supply, leading to lost exports. In 2012, the German company agreed to pay $750 million to settle claims from 11,000 U.S. farmers in five states. Restoring genetic purity to a crop is a very expensive process and takes time.

Is there a public safety issue?

That’s a matter of debate. Regulators were quick to jump on the Oregon discovery with a battery of tests and extensive investigations that are under way now. Monsanto (MON) designed the Roundup Ready wheat to withstand its Roundup herbicide used to keep fields free of weeds, and the gene isn’t considered harmful. “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed the food and feed safety of Roundup Ready wheat more than a decade ago,” Monsanto said in a May 29 statement.

Critics of gene-altered food argue that the periodic crop discoveries highlight a regulatory system that is woefully inadequate to monitor the expansion of modified crops and to detect any dangerous genes that could materialize. “The question is why APHIS does not tighten its procedures for field trials. It’s incredibly lax, whatever APHIS may try to say,” says Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety.

Does the rogue wheat have any Sarah Palin connection?

No.

Bachman is an associate editor for Businessweek.com.

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