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Unauthorized GM Wheat Exposes The Insanity of Open-Air Field Trials

Unapproved, unwanted, and now out of control: the news that an unlicensed genetically modified (GM) wheat has been found growing on a field in Oregon – almost 10 years after it was supposed to have completely destroyed – sent shivers down my spine.

I’ve been blogging about the known and unknown risks of GM crops for a while. But we are now witnessing a real ‘escape-from-the-laboratory’ nightmare and, in a worst-case scenario, the impacts on U.S. agriculture could be truly devastating.

According to the USDA, an unnamed Oregon farmer noticed some volunteer wheat plants (“volunteer” is the farming term for a crop seed from previous years which germinates and grows in a place where it was not intentionally planted) growing in his wheat field, so he sprayed them with RoundUp herbicide, which is designed to kill anything green and growing. However, the sprays didn’t work. So he sent samples of the glyphosate-resistant wheat plants to the Oregon State University (OSU), which conducted tests. The OSU’s preliminary results indicated the possible presence of the transgene that conveys resistance to the commonly-used herbicide glyphosate, so they contacted the USDA. As a result, the USDA immediately began a formal investigation before confirming that the wheat was the same GM glyphosate-resistant wheat variety that Monsanto was authorized to field test in 16 states from 1998 to 2005. The USDA also stated that the last approved field trials of glyphosate-resistant GM wheat were conducted in Oregon in 2001.

While the vast majority of corn, soy and canola grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, no GM wheat has ever been approved in any country in the world – primarily because there is no global demand for it. Indeed, according to the New York Times, “one reason Monsanto dropped its development of genetically modified wheat in 2004 was concern from American farmers that it would endanger wheat exports.” With about $8.1 billion in American wheat exported in 2012, representing nearly half the total $17.9 billion crop, this news that U.S. wheat supplies could potentially be contaminated with an unauthorized GM wheat had predictable results on our wheat exports. This leaves the very real question of who will compensate the wheat farmers and other businesses that will undoubtedly suffer losses at the hands of Monsanto and its paid shills at all levels of government and society.

Immediately after the USDA statement last Friday, Japan announced that it was suspending imports of certain white wheat and feed wheat, while South Korea and Europe announced the stepping up of testing of U.S. wheat shipments for possible contamination. And rightly so: in most other democracies, citizens are actually given the right to choose whether or not they want to eat GM food.

Of course, the USDA and Monsanto (and the usual GM pundits) were quick to mount a rearguard defense, highlighting the fact that there is no evidence that modified wheat entered the food chain. Even if this had occurred, we are told, the USDA has already deemed this RoundUp Ready GM wheat as “safe” to eat.

But that’s not the point. At the very least, the identification of this unapproved GM wheat has just blown a hole the size of Oregon in the U.S. regulatory regime – a regime that’s supposed to protect us from just this type of event. It also makes a complete mockery of Monsanto’s often patronizing assurances about the control measures it puts in place to minimize any risks to the environment. Given the current circumstances, Monsanto’s recent statement that its “process for closing out the Roundup Ready wheat program was rigorous, well-documented and audited” is just farcical. I mean, you don’t have to be a genius to see that the methodology and safeguards used during these particular GM field trials were wholly ineffective or inadequate – or (most likely) both. My question is: Were the so-called safety measures used in this specific GM wheat trial any different to the thousands of other open-air GM trials run by Monsanto and the other companies peddling this flawed technology (and its unintended consequences) over the last decade or three across the U.S.? I somehow doubt it.

Monsanto states that their “own internal investigation has confirmed that it did not have any prior test site at the location where the material under investigation was reported to have been present.” In other words, no one knows how this potentially illegal GM wheat found its way on to this particular field. This whole debacle highlights once again the urgent need for tighter, more transparent and independent oversight of an industry that’s not only willing to use its fiscal power and political influence to run roughshod over public opinion, but which is now clearly operating beyond the control of our regulators.

Back in 2010, I wrote about how (USDA-approved) GM canola was escaping the agricultural fields, not only becoming a weed itself, but also passing on its GM herbicide-resistant genes to wild plant relatives. Researchers from the University of Arkansas had established that more than 83 percent of the wild canola plants they found growing wild along roadsides right across North Dakota were positive for GM genes. Some of the plants tested positive for resistance to both glyphosphate (Roundup) and glusfosinate (Liberty). Now, commercial GM canola is sold as resistant to either Roundup or Liberty, not both, so this dual resistance actually evolved in the wild after the plants had escaped. The scientists were concerned because this herbicide-resistance could also spread to other weed relatives, with eight species of wild weeds most likely capable of hybridizing with GM canola.

While I hate to say ‘I told you so,’ I also wrote: “If GM canola can establish itself in the wild, evolve and potentially cross-pollinate with other plants, what about the other experiments lying in wait at the lab?” My concerns were based on comments from Dr. Cynthia Sagers, associate professor at the University of Arkansas and one of the two researchers who discovered the wild GM canola, who said: “There have been 1,100 plants approved for field trials and who knows what those are – pharmaceutical proteins, drought-resistant crops? Herbicide-resistances are very simple traits. Products in development are more complicated.”

Following the identification of this unapproved GM wheat – and the possible contamination of U.S. wheat supplies – what I want to know is this: If it has taken almost 10 years for anyone to identify this unauthorized GM wheat, what assurances do we have that adequate measures to prevent similar unauthorized releases were in place for the thousands of other open-air GM trials that have taken place over the years? And how many other similar accidents might happen in the future unless we take action now? Remember: this unapproved GM wheat wasn’t identified through any elaborate national government testing regime or careful follow-up monitoring of the trial site by Monsanto. No, it was the result of commonsense action by a farmer who spotted something unusual in his field. I’m just surprised Monsanto hasn’t tried to sue him for the unauthorized use of its intellectual property…

Criticize me for scaremongering (once again), but we need to stop all open-air GM crop trials immediately until a full and independent review has been carried out on the safety measures used at this trial to ensure that this kind of environmental pollution isn’t repeated elsewhere. We must also demand the setting up of a new independent task force to undertake tests at every open air GM trial site – both past and present – to identify any other escaped “triffids,” and to ensure that these biotech polluters are forced to pay dearly for the clean-up of our country and planet. Or perhaps you’d rather just carry on taking Monsanto’s word instead?

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