Genetically engineered crops are widespread in the U.S., particularly when it comes to GE corn, soybeans and cotton, but one crop that has not been approved as a genetically modified organism is wheat.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “There are no GE wheat varieties for sale or in commercial production in the United States at this time, as APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] has not deregulated any GE wheat varieties.”1
So why, then, did the USDA recently confirm that unapproved GE wheat plants had been discovered growing in an agricultural field in Washington state?2
Rogue GE wheat discovered in Washington state
One of the inevitable truths about nature is that nothing exists in a bubble, and when GE crops are introduced into the wild, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to contain them. The discovery of GE wheat growing in an unplanted agricultural field in Washington is one unsettling example. The GE wheat, which is resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide, is likely a remnant from a former field trial.
“USDA is collaborating with our state, industry and trading partners, and we are committed to providing all our partners with timely and transparent information about our findings,” the public health agency said in a statement, adding, “There is no evidence that GE wheat has entered the food supply.”3
In the 1990s, Monsanto, which was acquired by Bayer in 2018, developed GE wheat with a trait that makes it resistant to glyphosate. Although the GE wheat never received approval and was not developed commercially, it was evaluated, according to Monsanto, in a limited number of field trials in the Pacific Northwest from 1998 to 2001.4
However, according to a December 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service, the USDA’s APHIS granted Monsanto approval to test GE wheat in about 100 field trials spread throughout 16 states between 1998 and 2005.
What’s more, the GE wheat detected in Washington state is not the first time Monsanto’s GE wheat has shown up in unexpected places. The first time was in 2013, when GE wheat was found in Oregon. While Oregon was one state on the approval list for field trials, the field where the GE wheat was originally detected was not one of the areas used for such trials.5
In fact, it was only detected because a farmer who sprayed his 80-acre field with glyphosate discovered wheat plants that were volunteers (i.e., they came up on their own) and were not killed by glyphosate. He took samples of the wheat plants to Oregon State University, where scientists tested them and found the potential presence of GE glyphosate-tolerance in the plants.
The scientists then notified APHIS, which formally investigated and found the plants were one of Monsanto’s GE glyphosate-tolerant wheat varieties used in field trials.6
In 2014, GE wheat was again discovered, this time in Montana. In 2016, the USDA also confirmed the detection of GE wheat plants — 22 of them in all, which were found in a field in Washington state.7 GE wheat also popped up in Alberta, Canada, in 2018, before most recently making another appearance in Washington state.8
GE wheat contamination could have major trade implications
If GE wheat were to show up in U.S. wheat exports, it could have serious implications for trade. Wheat is a major crop for the U.S., ranking third among field crops, behind only corn and soybeans. In 2018 to 2019 alone, U.S. farmers produced an estimated 1.884 billion bushels of winter, spring and durum wheat, planted on 47.8 million acres of land.9
While the U.S. produces only about 7% of the world’s wheat, it ranks among the top three global wheat exporters.10 However, this would likely change if evidence of GE wheat contamination was found.
Japan, the European Union, South Korea and many other countries have a zero-tolerance policy about importing unapproved GE wheat. When such plants were first detected in Oregon, Japan and South Korea temporarily suspended purchase of U.S. soft white wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest.11
It’s similar to what happened in 2006, when traces of unapproved GE rice were discovered in the U.S. rice harvest. This led to several countries banning U.S. grown rice and exporters lost millions of dollars as a result. Bayer, the company responsible for developing and field testing the GE rice, ended up agreeing to pay $750 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by 11,000 rice farmers.12
As for the rogue GE wheat, in 2014 Monsanto also agreed to pay $250,000 to wheat growers’ associations along with $2.1 million into a settlement fund for farmers of soft white wheat in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.13 Since then, the USDA claims it has strengthened its oversight of GE wheat field trials, noting:14
“After previous detections of GE wheat, USDA strengthened its oversight of regulated GE wheat field trials. APHIS now requires developers to apply for a permit for field trials involving GE wheat beginning with GE wheat planted on or after January 1, 2016.
Bringing GE wheat under permit enables APHIS to create and enforce permit conditions that ensure confinement and minimize the risk that the regulated GE wheat will persist in the environment.”