The Mystery of the Suddenly Appearing GM Wheat

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You have been reading about the sudden appearance of GM wheat in a field in Oregon, the ongoing USDA investigation into how it appeared there, the possibility of a boycott of American wheat by countries worried about GM wheat in their food supply, and the possibility of stiff losses to farmers (90% of Oregon wheat is exported). However, being a member of that vast group,  Clueless Urban Consumers, you held back on giving your opinion on social media because you were discovering a whole new world which you knew very little about , and did not feel comfortable asking out to the world  the questions burning in your brain: for instance,” where do baby wheat come from anyway?”; and, “wait, what, there are different kinds of wheat?”

Here is something to start with: wheat is not pollinated by insects, it self pollinates inside the flower while the flower is closed. Why is this important? Because bees or insects flying around cannot carry pollen to other wheat plants and enable  cross pollination. The pollen is heavy and cannot be carried far, anyway. Extra pollen may fall to the ground but is not viable for long so the possibility of pollen in soil getting moved to the field planted with regular wheat is remote.

There are several varieties of wheat and the distinctions are important. The wheat grown in Oregon is soft white winter wheat, bought by Japan and Korea where it is used for noodles and crackers. There is also, “hard red winter wheat, “hard red spring” “hard white wheat’ and keeping all these varieties separate is a special concern of wheat growers and there are associations on every state to ensure that correct procedures are followed.

Now to the incident in question. A farmer in Oregon discovered that some wheat plants in his fields were resistant to glyphosphate and contacted researchers at Oregon state University where it was determined that this was indeed, genetically modified wheat. GM wheat was tested by Monsanto from 1998 to 2005 and last grown in Oregon in 2002. Monsanto then withdrew the application and closed the trial. After this, proper measures should have been taken to deal with the seeds and other materials from the trial. (It is important to note here that this GM wheat had been certified safe by the FDA, but before the deregulatory process could start, there were threats of international boycott, protests etc so GM wheat never came to the market). Also worth noting,   Monsanto is currently testing GM wheat in Hawaii and North Dakota.

So if I have understood all this correctly, some questions arise. The obvious one, how did the GM plants get to this field? No one, wheat growers, scientists, or even those opposed to GM technology else has a plausible explanation of how this wheat could come up, years after testing had stopped in a field  which has been cultivated regularly without any previous occurrence of GM wheat.  GM corn and soy are widely grown in the US so logically there would be a higher probability of these sprouting randomly than wheat.

And that brings us to some notable observations: if I wanted GM technology to vanish overnight or even scare the population enough to push through my agenda of labeling everything in sight, what crop would I pick to create a fuss over? One that had already been the object of controversy which lead to abandonment of the GM version, (and , double bonus, the GM version was being tested by the company that has been made virtually synonymous with biotechnology in agriculture by anti-GM groups), one which forms a huge share of exports and is essential to the livelihood of many people , one where the distinction between varieties is crucial, one that would stir international controversy: wheat is the perfect answer.  Is it possible that this is not a random occurrence?

While we wait for for the USDA to publish its findings, it is important to remember that even if this wheat entered the food chain it is perfectly safe for human and animal consumption. So there is no reason for panic. All this does is stir, once again, the pot of fake science and fear that some people cannot seem to let alone. Let us take a step back and understand this: every time fears are raised and technology is abandoned, farmers and consumers, specially in the developing world, lose options. There is so much noise about GM seeds being expensive, well, look at how expensive the process is: if GM wheat ever comes to market the whole process would have taken decades, and who has the resources to stay the course over that period of time? Not universities or governments or research institutions but, you guessed right, a corporation like Monsanto.

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4 responses to “The Mystery of the Suddenly Appearing GM Wheat

  1. Reblogged this on Science on the Land and commented:
    argylesock says… I too have been wondering how that Roundup Ready wheat came to appear in that field. It will be interesting to see what is found out about the incident. Meanwhile I’ll say that concern about GM crops isn’t all ‘fake science and fear’. There’s good science leading many people to think that GM biotech isn’t the right way forward. You can read more under my ‘genetic modification’ tag.

    • Thanks for the reblog! I would agree with you on some reservations and those should be discussed. Unfortunately what comes out in the news outlets or social media does tend to be oversimplified or dramatic or sometimes even plain wrong, for eg the image doing the rounds of ” GMO free salt”. The wheat story also appeals to the detective fiction fan in me :) so hope we get to know the facts soon!

  2. ‘GMO free salt’? Oh my word, that’s a new one to me!

    I hope you’ll let us know when you find out more about the wheat story. Crime, perhaps?

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