June 11, 2013 - by Fiona
The toast you ate for breakfast was not made with genetically modified wheat. We hope.
Last week the world learned with horror, that secure field trials of genetically modified (GM) wheat in Oregon, USA had somehow been breached. Wheat seed from the GM field trials had apparently “escaped” and infected a wheat farmer’s crop. Global corporation Monsanto says these field trials ended in 2005.1
The GM wheat being trialled by Monsanto was called Roundup Ready. The aim was to genetically engineer a wheat which could survive being sprayed with the weedkiller Roundup. So the weeds infesting the wheat crop die, but the wheat survives and thrives.2
Soon after the news broke, Japan suspended future orders of wheat from the US, followed by South Korea, and the European Union is testing all wheat from the US to ensure it is free from GM wheat.3
However, news agencies report that Monsanto restarted GM wheat trials in Hawaii and North Dakota in 2011.4
To understand why GM wheat is causing such horror, let’s take a look at wheat – one of the world’s major food crops - and how wheat has changed dramatically in the past 50 years.
What is Wheat?
Wheat is a type of grass which forms a seed head. Inside the seed head are the grains of wheat – those same grains are also the seeds (and can also be called berries). The grains are processed and ground into flour. Flour is made into bread, biscuits, cakes, and many other food products.
These same grains of wheat, if planted, will grow into wheat plants, developing a strong central stalk, topped by a seed head. Wheat plants need to be grown near each other , so when the plants have developed a seed head and pollen, the merest breeze causes the pollen to float from one plant to another. And so the crop is pollinated and grains of wheat begin to grow and swell the seed head.
A quick internet search taught me that today, in the 21st century there are about 30 different wheat grass species and about 30,000 varieties. However, once upon a time there were only three wheats.
Early wheat came from The Fertile Crescent, an arc shaped area of fertile land in the Middle East. A wide variety of foods seemed to originate in this Fertile Crescent. As a Christian, this points me to precious seeds coming from Noah’s ark which landed on the “...mountains of Ararat...” (Genesis 8:4), after the Great Flood.
Two of these foods are wheat varieties called Emmer and Einkhorn. They have much simpler genetics than the modern wheats. Apparently people who are wheat and gluten intolerant may be able to eat emmer and einkhorn without negative reaction. A later wheat variety, called spelt or dinkel is apparently also well tolerated by people who are wheat or gluten intolerant. 5 Our family is hoping to experiment, so watch this space!
Modern Wheat - A Scientists Dream?
You have only to close your eyes and imagine fields of wheat moving in synchrony with the wind, to realise how wheat may have cross-pollinated over the centuries. But in the last century, governments and corporations have focussed on growing bigger and better wheat. And believe it or not, “genetics” was useful in plant breeding nearly 100 years ago!
And why not? The aims of breeding better wheat are worthy: Better wheat yields for farmers; better wheat varieties for different climates; different wheats for different foods; and the most worthy of all – wheat to save the world from hunger.
At first, scientists cross pollinated wheat varieties by growing two varieties together. As time went on, new techniques were developed. In the 1960’s a huge breakthrough was made at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, east of Mexico City, part of a huge programme called “The Green Revolution.”6
The new wheat had a very big seed head on the usual 1-1.2 metre (4-5 foot) stalk. But the stalk kept buckling under the weight of the seed head. So a new variety was bred with a short, sturdy stalk. Modern super wheat was born! Before too many years, by the 1980’s, most wheat farmers in the United States had adopted the new, amazingly productive wheat! 6
One of the scientists, Dr Normal Borlaug received many awards for his semi-dwarf or dwarf variety of wheat. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.7
Since then scientists have reached even further into technology, and since the 1980’s thousands of new wheat varieties have been produced! Did you know that the wheat you are eating may contain hundreds of unknown proteins? you know that there is no documented evidence of new wheat varieties being tested on animals or humans before being released? And did you know that thousands of people are giving up modern wheat, from their own research or on the advice of their doctor or health professional?
GM Wheat could be Godzilla for Breakfast
Today there are many ways to manipulate the genes of plants, animals and yes, even humans. We know this as genetic modification. A highly publicised example of a GM plant is the tomato with the fish gene. The theory is that the fish gene, spliced into a tomato gene with a special splicing “gun” will enable tomato plants to be grown at cooler temperatures, to be stored for longer at cooler temparatures. All this sounds just fine and dandy. But where is the testing to see what happens to people who eat these GM foods over time?
If wheat makes up the major part of most people’s food intake, and if GM wheat was unleashed into food products lining supermarket shelves, what would happen to the people who ate the GM wheat? In six months? In five years?
The great unknown about GM wheat, the Godzilla unleashed, is that no person alive on our planet knows what will happen. Not the scientists, not the seed company bosses, not the politicians, certainly not the ordinary wheat-consuming public.
And let us not forget that once GM wheat starts pollinating with modern wheat, there is no way of ever eradicating GM wheat from the food supply.
Our hearts go out to the honest wheat farmers who must be gravely concerned about their future, and the future of the human race, should their crops become infected with GM wheat.
Next Time: "Call to Me..."
1. Grist - A Beacon in the Mist, "Illegal Monsanto GMO Wheat found in Oregon" by John Upton, published May 30 2013. Retrieved June 11 2013 from http://grist.org/news/illegal-monsanto-gmo-wheat-found-in-oregon/
2. Food Safety Network - Safe Food from Farm to Fork, "What is Roundup Ready® Wheat?" published March 13, 2003. Retrieved June 11, 2013 from http://www.foodsafety.ksu.edu/articles/533/ge_wheat_factsheet.pdf
3.Reuters US Edition, "US seeks source of errant gene altered wheat as importers flee" by Charles Abbott and Meeyoung Cho published May 31, 2013. Retrieved June 11, 2013 from http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/31/us-wheat-korea-idUSBRE94U0KW20130531
4.Bloomberg, "Monsanto Resumed Field Trials of Roundup Ready Wheat" by Jack Kasky published June 1, 2013. Retrieved June 11, 2013 from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-31/monsanto-resumed-field-trials-of-roundup-ready-wheat.html
5. Bio-distributors - Biodynamic and Organic Wholesalers of Australia "Spelt Grain". Retriefed June 9, 2013 from http://www.biodistributors.com.au/ProdInfFiles/spelt.php
6. Wheat Belly by Dr William Davis MD published 2011 by Rodale Inc, New York, USA. Also see: http://www.wheatbellyblog.com
7. Nobel Prize.org - The Official Website of the Nobel Prize, "The Nobel Peace Prize 1970 - Norman Borlaug - Biography". Retrieved June 10, 2013 from http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1970/borlaug-bio.html