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Genetic engineering and the alien wheat in Oregon

June 17, 2013|By Karin Klein
  • Wheat grows in a test field at Oregon State University.
Wheat grows in a test field at Oregon State University. (Natalie Behring / Bloomberg )

There's a dearth of evidence that genetically engineered food is dangerous to human health — but that doesn’t mean consumers are wrong to have concerns about its effect on the environment and on non-bioengineered crops. U.S. agribusiness has rushed to embrace the GMO (for genetically modified organism, though genetically engineered is a more accurate term) possibilities, with almost all of our corn, soy and canola now featuring genes that have been tinkered with, usually to make them resistant to certain herbicides.

The discovery of genetically engineered wheat at a conventional farm in Oregon should be giving them and a lot of other people pause. No one knows where this little patch of herbicide-resistant wheat came from. Certainly not from the farm owners, whose workers discovered the unusual plants and tried unsuccessfully to kill them by spraying them. And not from adjacent fields of engineered wheat. Wheat, in fact, is one common crop that is not generally bioengineered; such wheat had been developed by Monsanto Co., but it was not continued. This mystery wheat dates from that attempt.

If wheat that hasn’t been grown on purpose for years is showing up in a field, how much more is around? And how many GMO foods that are grown in large numbers are inserting their genes into fields of conventional crops?

This should be a bigger concern to anti-GMO groups than whether the engineered foods carry a label identifying themselves. The purpose of labeling is to give consumers the information to make a choice. But there already are choices. Organic foods are not genetically engineered and so are many conventional foods. Food producers have formed the Non-GMO Product so that they can have their products independently verified as containing no genetically engineered ingredients; last year, according to CNBC, $2.4 billion in food was sold bearing labels announcing that there were no such ingredients in the package.

Proposals to label GMO foods generally exempt products that have been accidentally contaminated by engineered crops. If cross-contamination is a growing problem, then it doesn’t matter what the label says. The consumer has no choice if farmers doing their best to grow traditional crops can’t manage it because of cross-contamination.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has come out with soothing language about how this appears to be an isolated event and that the wheat is not dangerous to consume anyway. Not quite the point. We might never find out how the wheat got there. What matters is what safeguards Monsanto, other GMO producers and the farmers who use their products put in place and what responsibility they take for any damage. That includes damage to consumer trust. We like to think that labels correctly identify what’s in the products we buy, but accidental contamination raises a whole new area of uncertainty.

There have been immediate and pragmatic consequences as well. Some Asian markets have suspended imports of wheat from the region, and Oregon legislators are demanding that farmers be compensated for their losses. In the absence of any evidence that a renegade farmer with access to genetically engineered seed randomly sowed it around eastern Oregon, the responsibility will most likely belong to Monsanto. The bigger question might be whether lawmakers will make it stay there.

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