In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed the discovery of an acre-sized group of genetically modified wheat plants growing on an eastern Oregon farm. The farmer notified the agency after becoming alarmed when an application of the herbicide Roundup failed to kill them.
Investigators identified the plants as Roundup Ready wheat, which was engineered by Monsanto to withstand application of its signature herbicide. This strain of wheat had never been approved by USDA, and was last grown experimentally in 2004, when the project was scrapped.
How this stubborn wheat patch ended up in an Oregon field years after it had ostensibly been removed from circulation is a mystery that scientists from USDA and Monsanto have been scrambling to solve. However it came to be, this incident has serious implications for the idea of “coexistence,” a scenario wherein GM and non-GM crops are grown and sold, separately and simultaneously, by U.S. farmers. Coexistence is the policy embraced by USDA chief Tom Vilsack, and his agency.
A big risk posed by coexistence is that GM and non-GM plants will mix, jeopardizing markets for non-GM crops. Immediately after the Oregon GM wheat discovery Japan, one of the U.S.’s largest export markets for wheat, slapped on restrictions on U.S. wheat imports, and South Korea quickly followed suit.
Even if the Oregon wheat turns out to be some kind of well-contained and neatly explained anomaly, American wheat farmers will still have lost market share, to Russia, Australia and others, that may prove difficult to recover.
This was not the first instance of economic fallout from GM contamination of non-GM foods. In 2006, Bayer’s LibertyLink rice contaminated the U.S. rice supply, which tanked export demand for U.S. rice. And in 2000, contamination of non-GM corn by StarLink’s GM corn caused significant economic blowback.
But rather than a red flag, USDA appears to consider events like this as the price of coexistence, as the agency expects such events to be the new normal.
A Feb. 21 USDA report summarizes recommendations made by its Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture. This committee was convened to address coexistence, and its mandate implies more escapes like Oregon’s Roundup Ready wheat are expected.
The committee’s central task is to address the question, “What types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate to address economic losses by farmers in which the value of their crops is reduced by unintended presence of genetically engineered (GE) material.”
American wheat farmers might have some questions about this proposed compensation, given what’s transpiring in Oregon. Chicago Attorney Adam Levitt litigated cases against Bayer and StarLink corn, winning judgments of $920 million and $110 million respectively.
He told NutraIngredients-USA.com that his phones have been “very busy” since the Oregon discovery.
Neither StarLink, LibertyLink, nor Monsanto’s un-named Roundup Ready wheat have been shown harmful to humans (though some people believe that StarLink triggered allergic responses). In fact, there is no rock-solid evidence of any human health problems created by (approved) GM foods. But in the marketplace, perception is reality, and if the Japanese aren’t buying GM wheat, that’s the reality that matters.
One of the many unknowns about the Oregon GM wheat situation is whether the plants are a direct descendent from the decade-old trials or the result of GM pollen passing along the resistance to wheat. Monsanto, unsurprisingly, claims this is unlikely, as wheat typically pollinates itself rather than crossing. But it’s not impossible, as some crossing does occur. In fact, there have been several instances of GM plants passing their engineered constructs to other, related species, including weeds, via pollen.
“There has always been a worry with wheat, being in the grass family,” David Ervin, environmental management professor at Portland State University in Oregon, told the New York Times. If there was a transfer of the gene into grasses, he said, “There’s going to be difficulty in controlling those grasses, and you might have to resort to stronger herbicide treatments, some of which have more environmental consequences.”
While instances like the wheat found in Oregon have resulted from supposedly unforeseeable events, USDA’s 2011 approval of GM alfalfa almost dares such escapes to happen. Alfalfa is the main forage crop for dairy cows and one of the principal foods for beef cows, including grass-fed cattle. Alfalfa is bee-pollinated, which means that wherever GM alfalfa is planted, every other alfalfa plant within about five miles will be subject to contamination with GM pollen. Alfalfa is a perennial, commonly living 10 to 25 years. A single plant can produce 16,000 seeds per year, which makes it seem inevitable that organic and grass-fed cattle will eat some GM alfalfa. What happens next isn’t clear. Organic standards prohibit any quantity of GM material in certified-organic products. If GM alfalfa genes travel as far as seems likely, it could mean a change in the definition of organic, or the end of organic meat and dairy entirely.
But instead of concern about this possibility, it appears USDA plans on watching it happen. A Feb. 21 document discusses the need to “Develop monitoring procedures for transgenic alfalfa pollen load and for assessing transgenic presence; this effort will be an important building block for field-based tools.” This isn’t the language of an agency committed to strict separation of GM and non-GM food.
Coexistence, it’s becoming increasingly clear, doesn’t mean two systems, existing side by side in peace. It means that practitioners of one system, non-GM farming, will have to learn to exist with the economic and ecological problems created by its GM counterparts. Given how difficult this counterpart is to control, “accommodation” seems like a more appropriate word than coexistence.