The USDA has now identified the unapproved rogue GMO wheat they found growing in a field in Washington State last month. MON 71800 is a strain of genetically-modified wheat made to resist Round-Up.
The Round-Up Ready Wheat is not approved for commercial use in the US or anywhere in the world. Monsanto, the wheat’s creator, applied for USDA approval for the GMO variety back in 2002 and 2004, but abandoned the applications before the USDA could approve them.
Unapproved rogue GMO wheat plants have been discovered multiple times in the past. They were found in Alberta, Canada in 2018, Washington state in 2016, Montana in 2014, and Oregon in 2013. The Oregon discovery of GMO wheat growing in a commercial field where it had never been planted led several Asian countries including Japan and South Korea to temporarily ban imports of US wheat.
“We have been informed by the USDA of a possible detection of GM wheat in Washington State, possibly on the site of a former field trial,” Bayer Crop Sciences spokeswoman Charla Lord said of the most recent find.
Interestingly, those fields hadn’t been planted with the GMO wheat variety since the early 2000s. Monsanto ended their development of GMO wheat back in 2004 over concern that it wouldn’t succeed in foreign markets.
Why would foreign markets reject Round-Up Ready Wheat?
Round-up’s primary ingredient, glyphosate, has been classified as a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization. In fact, last month a California jury awarded more than $2 billion to a couple that argued Round-up caused their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
While the US’s federal government has dragged it’s feet on any GMO bans, 39 other countries ban the cultivation of GMO crops, including 28 European Countries, Algeria and Madagascar in Africa; Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Bhutan, and Saudi Arabia in Asia; Belize, Peru, Ecuador, and Venezuela in South America; and all of Russia. Meanwhile, as many as 60 other countries restrict the import of GMO crops or have some sort of partial ban on GMOs.
What dangers do rogue GMO crops present?
After the 2018 discovery of rogue GMO wheat growing in a field in Alberta, Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network said “It’s a concern that the government was unable to identify the cause of this contamination. We think that in the case of genetically modified crops — where there is a serious risk of economic harm if contamination occurs — that there needs to be a ban on field testing those crops.”
The 2018 find was particularly disturbing. Not only had the GMO wheat not been planted anywhere since 2004, the closest planting had been more than 185 miles away.
After the 2013 discovery of rogue GMO wheat in a field in Oregon, one of the Oregon State University researchers who tested the wheat, Bob Zemetra, said there is no easy or obvious explanation for how the rogue wheat showed up where it did. “Pretty much all that seed, and any program that was using it, either buried it, burned it or shipped it back to Monsanto, as part of the instructions for doing the field testing,” he said. “It was a very rigorous testing protocol.”
“I don’t know that we are ever going to get a straight answer, or a satisfactory answer, on how it got there,” Zemetra said.
This breathtaking possibility for contamination of non-GMO commercial fields hundreds of miles away and 14 years after the last trial crops had been planted is alarming to many scientists and economists.
If we can’t control the spread of GMO crops, we risk them taking over our food supply. We risk losing the diversity of varieties of food crops that help us weather extreme growing conditions — droughts and infestations aren’t likely to make our country starve at the moment. If one variety of corn can’t weather a drought, we’ll just start planting a variety of corn that does. But if all those corn varieties are gone and replaced with a single variety of GMO corn, and that GMO corn is suddenly susceptible to that drought, then we face catastrophe.
While this extreme scenario is not currently happening with GMO wheat, the rogue wheat that keeps popping up where it shouldn’t does leave some scientists wondering if more of our commercial wheat supply is contaminated with GMO wheat than we currently think. Unfortunately, there are no valid commercial tests to verify whether wheat contains the biotech Roundup Ready gene.
The Cost of GMO Contamination Prevention
Organic farmers are required to take measures to prevent contamination by GMO crops. One of the main requirements is maintaining a buffer zone to protect crops from chemical spray drift or cross-pollination.
The size of the required zone varies based on the drift risk of the field in question, and because the zone is not being cultivated with any organic crops, it usually represents a financial loss to organic farmers. One survey conducted by The Food and Water Watch found that “the median cost of buffers due to the loss of organic premium is approximately $2,500 per year, with several farmers reporting annual losses of over $20,000.”
Another method organic growers use to avoid GMO contamination is delayed planting. They hope that by delaying planting until after their neighbors plant their GMO fields, they can avoid cross-pollination. Roughly 67% of all organic farmers report using this method; they are not planting or harvesting at optimal times for their crops. Sub-optimal planting times lead to sub-optimal harvests, representing anywhere between $3000 to $5000 per year in lost revenue to the average organic farmer.
One surveyed organic farmer wrote, “If [GMOs] were not here this would not be going on. It’s their contamination that’s the problem but we have to guard against something we have no control over.“
Another complained, “I’m getting tired of maintaining these miles of buffers. How about the guy that sprays up to the fence be liable for the damage that is done?”