While other genetically modified (GM) crops have been approved for planting in the U.S., GM wheat has not (though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did confirm that Roundup Ready wheat was safe for human food and animal feed more than a decade ago). So, the discovery of a GM strain of wheat growing in a farm field in Oregon prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate. The USDA has stated it was the same herbicide resistant wheat trait that was authorized to be field tested from 1998 to 2005.
We went to Dr. Stephen Baenziger, an agronomy professor and the Eugene W. Price Distinguished Professor of Small Grains Breeding and Genetics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for a better understanding of the situation.
Dr. Stephen Baenziger
Best Food Facts: How does something like this occur?
Dr. Baenziger: "I think the best thing to do right now is not to speculate. I really do not know how this happened but have faith that APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) will figure out how this occurred. To me, it is baffling and I am not aware of all the data behind this discovery. It is best to let those who have all the information present their findings and then decide if their conclusions make sense."
Best Food Facts: Should people who want to avoid foods with GM ingredients be concerned about products containing wheat? In other words, is it possible, in your opinion, that this kind of thing is widespread?
Dr. Baenziger: "I doubt it is more widespread for a number of reasons. First, Roundup (the herbicide to which the Oregon wheat was resistant) is routinely used to kill volunteer wheat. 'Volunteer' is a farming term for a crop seed from previous years which germinates and grows in a place where it was not intentionally planted. Any farmer that discovers that his/her wheat was sprayed and did not die would be very suspicious, as was the farmer in Oregon.
"I see thousands of acres of sprayed fields and the wheat is killed. Hence it is doubtful that it is widespread. The line of wheat found in Oregon is not adapted to the Great Plains, so it would not survive well here. Also, the GM trials were not done in every state and often there were relatively few trials in a state where it was tested, so it would be difficult to have it become widespread.
"The surprise that GM wheat was found, in part, indicates that the regulated trials were well done and every effort was made to contain the material. Lastly, since the discovery in Oregon, a lot of wheat has been tested in the grain trade and so far there is no indication that the GM wheat is being found in commercial shipments."
Best Food Facts: Is this strain of GM wheat safe to eat?
Dr. Baenziger: "My understanding is that the GM wheat was tested for food safety and it passed those tests. Hence I believe it is safe to eat. I certainly am still eating wheat products."
Best Food Facts: Most farmers today are planting genetically modified corn and soybeans but this is not the case with wheat. Why is that?
Dr. Baenziger: "Genetically modified wheat exists in the laboratory but it is not commercially available and has never been sold. There are tremendous needs that could be met through transgenic approaches with wheat. One company developed a gene that is resistant to a disease (fusarium head blight) that causes tremendous grain yield losses, but they’ve never been able to use it. With such a gene, we could reduce a toxic substance produced by a fungus (mycotoxin) in wheat that goes into the food supply, called vomitoxin. So, not only would it be of value to protect the crop, but it would also be a valuable food safety tool.
"The reason it is not commercially available is because of trade issues. Since 45 percent of the U.S. wheat crop is exported it would be economically damaging for other countries to reject our wheat because of genetic modification issues."
For more information on GMOs, view our five-part video series:
Are GMOs Safe?
Are GMOs Harmful to the Environment?
Are GM Foods Nutritionally Different?
How much do you know about GM food?