(Photo by Ian Sane, Flickr, Creative Commons)

Last month, genetically engineered (GE) wheat was discovered in a farm field in Washington state. That’s a big threat to wheat farmers, because, while biotech traits are prolific in major agricultural crops like corn and soybeans, all global wheat grown for the marketplace is GMO-free. In other words, GE wheat is currently not approved for commercial sale or use.

We’re talking about a $5 billion export industry.

So how did this wheat, which contained the Roundup Ready trait allowing plants to survive applications of glyphosate herbicides, unexpectedly show up in a fallow field?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says it’s trying to find out. This wheat and other varieties like it have been grown in experimental trials in Washington since 1999. The last experimental trial on record with Washington listed as a possible location was in 2016. (I say “possible” because exact records are unavailable to the public and, at times, regulators themselves, according to the USDA’s own Office of Inspector General.) The agency said the two unapproved wheat varieties discovered likely did not enter the food supply. A test kit is being made available to trading partners, including Japan and South Korea, to alleviate this concern.

This is the second time GE wheat has turned up in Washington in an area where it wasn’t expected to be found (the first was in 2016), and it’s the fourth identified occurrence in the U.S. In 2013, an Oregon farmer surprisingly discovered GE wheat in his field, and another event was identified at a Montana research station the following year.

By the Numbers: Genetically Engineered Wheat Trials in the U.S. (1994 – 2019)

  • Total trial applications to USDA-APHIS: 560
  • Total sites: 1,152
  • Total acres: 8,979
  • Total states and territories: 30
  • States and territories identified within applications:  AR, AZ, CA, CO, CT, HI, IA, ID, IL, IN, KS, LA, MA, ME, MN, MO, MT, ND, NC, NE, NJ, NY, OK, OR, PR, SD, TX, WA, WI, WY
  • Source: USDA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Service Interstate/Release and Release Permits and Notifications. Link

GE wheat hasn’t moved forward as a commercial product because of market resistance from buyers overseas. Monsanto petitioned the USDA in 2002 to approve Roundup Ready wheat, but pulled its application for regulatory approval in 2004 amid growing resistance. Since that time, economic studies reveal ongoing opposition among buyers.

Open-air experimental trials still happen, however, and oversight of these trials has been inadequate since day one, coming at a great cost. Unapproved GE wheat isn’t the only crop type to disrupt markets. In 2006, the U.S. rice industry lost upwards of $1 billion when an unapproved GE strain entered the long-grain rice supply, half of which is exported. Following the first GE wheat event in Oregon, several Asian countries temporarily halted imports from the U.S.

Most field trials happen under the USDA’s notification system, where GMO manufacturers simply notify the agency of trials, providing limited information that isn’t always shared at the state level. Farmers typically don’t know if an experimental trial is happening in the vicinity of their commercial production, making it impossible for them to gauge if their crops could cross with experimental traits in the area. Successful coexistence hinges on transparency, regardless of what you grow and for what market. Unapproved experimental traits continue to pose a unique market risk that is rarely discussed.

Policies Don’t Fit Technologies

Following the Oregon and Montana discoveries, the USDA made a minor internal policy shift and moved all GE wheat field trials over to the agency’s permit system, which theoretically should provide more regulatory oversight. Though a welcomed change, the permit system doesn’t assure complete containment, and this policy change doesn’t address wheat trials conducted prior to this decision, trials representing thousands of acres across the U.S.

The Coordinated Framework for Regulating Biotechnology, the regulatory umbrella overseeing the introduction of GMOs, was first developed in the 1980s. Instead of creating a new law to address these novel organisms, the U.S. government chose to patch together existing laws that predated the technology, adapting eminently unsuitable laws to the regulation of commodity crops that now posed unique market, environmental, and social challenges. Three agencies – the USDA, Environmental Protection Agency, and Food and Drug Administration – had to apply these laws, such as the Plant Pest Act and Plant Quarantine Act, through contorted interpretations of their new authority to oversee GMOs. This patchwork approach left many holes: the absence of mandated practices to mitigate cross-pollination between fields, post-market monitoring of approved products, a mechanism for compensating those harmed by adventitious presence, and a holistic look at the combined environmental, economic, and social impacts of the technology, to name a few.

Will States Take Matters into Their Own Hands?

States and local municipalities have attempted to fill the gaps left by the federal government’s patchwork approach through their own initiatives. For example, some counties have banned the production of GE crops to protect the diversity of their markets. And, last month, Vermont’s governor signed a law that creates a committee for reviewing new GE crop traits before they can be sold, distributed, or used in the state. This is the first time a state has required additional approval beyond what’s required by federal regulators.

Vermont’s legislation was spurred, at least in part, by the threat of GE soybeans that are resistant to dicamba, an herbicide that volatilizes and has wreaked havoc on specialty crop and non-GMO soybean producers across the Midwest and South. Yet the USDA claims, dubiously, that it doesn’t have the authority to look at indirect harms, such as herbicide drift or the development of herbicide-tolerant weeds, both of which pose enormous threats to biodiversity and to production agriculture as a whole.

The USDA Needs to Hear from Us

GMOs have now been in our fields and marketplace for more than two decades. We’ve learned a lot about the risks and benefits associated with these technologies from an agronomic, environmental, economic, and social perspective. We’ve also learned a great deal about the shortcomings of current regulations, including the examples of unapproved GE varieties, like wheat, continuing to show up where we least expect them.

The U.S. government could have avoided the muddled, rather uncoordinated, approach we now have for regulating biotechnology if it had directed Congress to craft a law that adequately fits the science and products associated with agricultural biotechnology. Moving forward, the only way for old statutes to fit modern technologies is to ensure that new regulations under these statutes are properly updated.

If you’re concerned about GE traits showing up where they’re least expected, the time to speak up is now. The USDA is in the process of updating its biotechnology regulations for the first time since they were developed and is accepting public comments through August 6. Unfortunately the agency is proposing to further weaken its oversight by allowing developers of GMOs to self-determine if their products should be regulated in the first place. This hands-off approach would greatly reduce the number and diversity of GE crops going through regulatory review, and therefore no oversight of most experimental field trials. This could ostensibly lead to a free-for-all in our agricultural landscapes with no prerequisite for being transparent with neighboring farms.

You can read more about our take on the proposal and take action at this link.

Kristina “Kiki” Hubbard is director of advocacy and communications at the Organic Seed Alliance.

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