Wheat with engineered gene demonstrates challenges for researchers

A strain of genetically modified wheat that Monsanto used in experiments several years ago has reappeared on an Eastern Oregon farm, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week. The contamination could have grave financial consequences for Monsanto and for farmers who export their wheat, and it raises questions about whether a very promising agricultural technology can be safely tested without contaminating nearby crops.

Farmers bring in the harvest with their combine harvesters, background, on a barley field near the village of Uzunovo in Moscow region, 170 km (105 miles) south of Moscow, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
Farmers bring in the harvest with their combine harvesters, background, on a barley field near the village of Uzunovo in Moscow region, 170 km (105 miles) south of Moscow, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

“The detection of this wheat variety does not pose a food safety concern,” the Department of Agriculture’s announcement read. “This variety is as safe as non-GE wheat currently on the market.”

Yet as The Post’s Steven Mufson reports, genetically engineered wheat has not been approved for commercial planting in the United States, and Japan and South Korea have already halted some wheat shipments from the Pacific Northwest.

Genetically modified soybeans and corn are planted and consumed widely in the United States, but many other countries are hesitant about importing genetically engineered crops. If they follow the Koreans and the Japanese in restricting imports, U.S. farmers could have a hard time selling their wheat.

Reuters notes that rice import bans were instituted in Japan and Europe when an experimental strain engineered by Bayer CropScience was found to have contaminated a large fraction of U.S. farmland in 2006. The company later agreed to pay growers $750 million in compensation.

Contaminations from field trials of genetically engineered crops are common, but the discovery in Oregon is unusual because it has been several years since the trials were conducted. Monsanto ended the trials in 2005 and never sought regulatory approval for the strain because of the limited international market.

This means that, since then, the wheat has had several seasons to spread geographically. Reuters reports that federal investigators are searching for more rogue wheat in the wake of the discovery.

Monsanto issued a statement on Wednesday calling for calm:

“There is considerable reason to believe that the presence of the Roundup Ready trait in wheat, if determined to be valid, is very limited.”

Yet Michelle Marvier, an ecologist at Santa Clara University who has studied the issue in depth, noted that strains of plants do not usually stay in one place. Animals, weather, and people unaware of what they’re transporting can all move pollen and seeds.

“It will be interesting to see how widespread this is,” she said.

Almost exactly 30 years ago, scientists first reported that they had the ability to modify plants’ genes. In a special issue commemorating the anniversary, the editors of Nature wrote that genetically engineered crops still have the potential to increase yields while making agriculture more environmentally sustainable.

Yet reaching that goal will require more research. Meanwhile, the risk that harmful new strains will escape experimental fields is real, especially as scientists look for ways to use crops to produce drugs and industrial compounds. One example is a strain of corn engineered by Syngenta to be easily converted into ethanol. The Department of Agriculture approved the strain for commercial use in 2011. As The New York Times reported, the food industry objected “that if the industrial corn cross-pollinated with or were mixed with corn used for food, it could lead to crumbly corn chips, soggy cereal, loaves of bread with soupy centers and corn dogs with inadequate coatings.”

Even when experimental strains are not a danger to humans or the environment, contamination can still have economic effects, given the difficulty of marketing genetically modified food.

For that reason, Marvier argued that researchers should conduct fewer trials in open fields. “When we decide we’re going to do a field trial, we need to decide what are going to be the implications for the market when it does escape, because it will,” she said, referring to the frequency with which containment efforts fail despite researchers’ best intentions.

Instead, she suggested conducting experiments in secure greenhouses or with artificial lights underground, or using other plants, such as algaes, to test new genes in the laboratory. While the extent of the contamination remains unknown, the discovery on the Oregon farm shows that the current system needs improvement.

READ: Unapproved genetically modified wheat from Monsanto found in Oregon field

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.

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