Do You Want to Know a Secret? GMO Wheat Could be Your Neighbor.

by Chrys Ostrander Originally Published in the Spokane Tilth Journal, Summer, 2001


The other day, I read a news article about secret field testing of GMO wheat in Canada causing quite a controversy up there, and rightly so. Here are some excerpts from that article and then some of my own comments.


"OTTAWA, Ontario, 08/07/01, Wired News Service:

     Canadian farmers are upset that they have no way of knowing whether neighboring fields are full of genetically-modified wheat that could potentially cross-pollinate with their conventional crops. That's because the Canadian government and two companies testing GM wheat refuse to reveal the more than 50 secret test sites across Canada.

     The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) maintains that the locations must be kept secret because Monsanto Canada and Syngenta, the two firms conducting the trials, have expressed concerns about vandalism and industrial espionage. Across Canada, farmers groups and environmental agencies are angry over the secret test sites. ‘We think it's outrageous that the information is not made public by the Canadian government,’ said Holly Penfound, Greenpeace Canada's environmental health campaign coordinator. ‘We believe the Canadian government should be representing the interests of Canadians, not the narrow interests of multinational corporations.’

     The controversy comes at the same time that a number of organizations have sent a letter to Prime Minister Jean Chretien protesting the introduction of GM wheat in Canada. The nine groups who signed the letter include the National Farmers Union, the Canadian Wheat Board and the Canadian Health Coalition. The letter has also received the support of more than 200 Canadian industry associations, local governments, citizen groups, as well as 50 Canadian experts and researchers and 60 international organizations. ‘Overwhelming numbers of Canadian farmers and consumers, as well as customers for Canadian wheat overseas, have said that they do not want GM wheat at this time,’ the letter reads in part. ‘We hope the Canadian government will act democratically, heed the wishes of its citizens, and act in the best economic interests of farmers.’"


     This is pretty astounding news (although this secret testing has been going on in Canada for years). Perhaps even more disturbing for citizens and farmers of the United States is that there are currently numerous secret locations where GMO wheat field trials are occurring right now in this country. This is despite widespread opposition by US wheat growers to the introduction of GMO wheat varieties into the market. Consumers worldwide have made it very clear they will avoid purchasing GMO products.

     Corn growers have already felt pain in the marketplace first from a resistance in many markets to the GMO corn products that have been introduced and more recently as a result of the Starlink fiasco. With Starlink, a GMO corn approved for animal feed only, the lack of GMO corn segregation combined with the outcrossing of Starlink genetic material into non-Starlink corn crops has created a crisis. Some corn growers have not been able to sell their crops and some consumers are claiming the GMO corn has sickened them. The EPA recently set a zero tolerance for Starlink corn genetic material in any corn sold.

     Wheat growers, learning from the experience in the corn market, are justifiably wary of inviting the same kinds of troubles into their already precarious market. In some states, wheat growers, wheat commissions and trade organizations have banded together in attempts, so far unsuccessful, to have their state legislatures enact moratoriums on the field testing of GMO wheat varieties. Not only are the proponents of testing moratoriums dubious of the eventual marketability of GMO wheat, they also fear that GMO wheat pollen drift from test plots into their non-GMO wheat fields could render their wheat crops unmarketable.

     Another group who opposes field trials, especially secret ones, are organic farmers. The new national standards for organic crop production allow no tolerance of GMO genetic material in certified organic crops. Secret locations of GMO wheat field trials may put neighboring organic farmers at risk of GMO contamination. Buyers of organic commodities now routinely test shipments for GMO contamination. Organic wheat found to be GMO contaminated would lose its organic label and could end up unmarketable even as conventionally grown wheat. Many organic wheat farmers, especially new and transitional ones, face increased production costs. They are counting on the price premium for their organic wheat to keep them solvent. GMO contamination could spell bankruptcy for them. There are virtually no protections or remedies from crop insurance or the courts for GMO contamination of organic or conventional crops.

     After reading the article about the Canadian secret test plots, I called Tom Mick, Cheif Executive Officer with the Washington State Wheat Commission and Dr. Tom Lumpkin who heads the Crop and Soil Science Dept. at WSU to ask if similar field trials are underway in Washington. Mr. Mick said that secret GMO wheat field trials are being done by WSU and Monsanto at "numerous" locations in Washington, Idaho and elsewhere. Tests are being conducted primarily on “Roundup Ready” wheat varieties which enable wheat crops to withstand applications of the herbicide glyphosate that is marketed by Monsanto Corporation under the brand name Roundup.

     Mr. Mick emphasized that, reflecting grower concern, it is the official position of the Washington Wheat Commission that it opposes the release of any GMO wheat variety into the open market until it can be demonstrated that customers exist for that product.

     I expressed my reservations that keeping GMO wheat field test locations secret is a justifiable policy given the concerns of wheat growers, organic farmers and others about the possibility of and dangers arising from GMO pollen drift and outcrossing. He invited me to address the Washington Wheat Commission on this issue at an upcoming meeting. I may take him up on that.

     Dr. Lumpkin was able to answer most of the questions I posed to him about GMO wheat field trials in Washington State being conducted by WSU. The only things he would not reveal to me were the actual number of field test plots in the state or where they are located. He did say that WSU is conducting their third year of field tests of GMO wheat in addition to tests being conducted in greenhouses and laboratories. This year, it includes field tests at several WSU research stations and one WSU field test of GMO wheat on a privately owned farm. He said he was "assured" that the GMO wheat in that farm-based trial was not allowed to go into its flowering stage, following “biosafety” research standards set by the newly-formed WSU bioethics committee, to which all WSU faculty are required to adhere. He stressed that WSU faculty are aware that in field tests of GMO wheat varieties, test plots are not to be allowed to go to the flowering stage or to maturity except those grown on WSU Research stations. He said that WSU strictly conforms to GMO wheat test plot isolation and buffer zone requirements set by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA (APHIS), although he was not sure of those exact criteria.  An extensive search of the APHIS website revealed no information specific to GMO wheat isolation. I did learn, however, that Canadian and US regulations for GMO field trials have been “harmonized” by bilateral agreements. In the Canadian field tests, the buffer zone consists of "100-foot buffer zones of bare land separating them from other crops, as well as 80 feet of broadleaf crops and another 16 feet of corn to catch stray pollen" for a total of 196 feet. APHIS sets the isolation distances for other GMO crops such as corn, tobacco and potatoes at the distances required to produce certified seed crops which for hybrid wheat is 330 feet.

     Whether these isolation and buffer zones are adequate to prevent the escape of GMO pollen into neighboring crops or wild wheat relatives such as goat grass is the subject of much debate. If goat grass, which is closely related to red wheat and is a troublesome weed in grain growing systems, was to acquire resistance to Roundup, it would quickly become not just a headache to wheat growers but a nightmare. Part of the research being conducted by WSU, Monsanto and others is how to prevent the outcrossing to goat grass from happening.

     When I asked Dr. Stephen Jones, a respected WSU wheat breeder and critic of WSU’s current GMO research agenda, about WSU’s biosafety protocols in place for wheat, he said “it's going to crash for sure. I would make them financially responsible for any damage that they inflict on our markets.  There have been some fairly large grow outs already in the state and their overall GMO strategy continues to be ‘ooops, hey whadya know its already out there and well, gee no one has died yet so what the heck, why don't we just grow it everywhere.’ If we already can't keep our good wheat straight how are we going to keep our bad wheat straight?”
       Dr. Lumpkin said normally, WSU's GMO wheat field plots have "incompatible cereal buffers" and the test plots are monitored for "volunteers" that can arise from GMO seed that may fall to the ground when the test crop is harvested. GMO wheat field test crops are destroyed by incineration at a WSU incinerator in Pullman after the research usefulness of the test crop has passed, he said. Farm machinery used in GMO wheat tests also needs to be meticulously cleaned so that GMO seed isn’t left in them to commingle with non-GMO crops later on.

     Dr. Lumpkin said that WSU engages in GMO wheat research on its own as well as "contracted private research". The contracted private research often involves proprietary information that WSU is not at liberty to discuss, which he cited as one of the reasons he could not divulge the number of GMO wheat research plots WSU has. That contracted private research is subject to the same biosafety standards as all other WSU GMO field research, he said.

     A source of concern for Dr. Lumpkin is the solely private field trials of GMO wheat being conducted around the state that are not part of WSU research.. While Dr. Lumpkin asserts that Monsanto has an "excellent program" of controls in place to prevent GMO wheat pollen drift and is also bound to the APHIS isolation and buffer zone requirements, he worries that the private research field test plots "could be anywhere" and no one but the corporations have that information. The secrecy surrounding private test plots may not be in the best interests of the public, he said. He thinks that the situation might be eased if the state of Washington was to establish a "clearing house" in which the locations of all GMO field test plots, public, semi-public as well as private, were cataloged (but still kept secret). This way, says Dr. Lumpkin, if a problem was to arise, for instance GMO contamination of a farmer's wheat shipment was discovered, there would be the ability to trace the possible source. I pointed out that this was not likely to assuage the concerns of many farmers whose livelihoods are being put at risk by the presence of GMO wheat field trials in their midst. Such a system, I said, would only be useful after a problem arose, prevent adequate monitoring for off-site drift and preclude precautionary measures being taken by neighboring farmers.

     Secrecy surrounding GMO field trials seriously compromises the public's right to know about and influence public policy, especially in the case of the publicly funded research being carried on by WSU. Secrecy and the field testing of GMO crops are incompatible. The threat of acts of eco-terrorism against GMO field trials or corporate espionage fears are not sufficient justifications to put any farmer's livelihood at risk. The requirements in a free, democratic society for public discovery and discourse are undercut in such an environment and it smacks of corporate favoritism at the expense of civil liberty and prudent scientific exploration. The lifting of this shroud of secrecy in GMO field trials is an issue the sustainable agriculture community should address. Additionally, we as a society must correct the disparity between the level of research dollars going to advancing GMOs versus the dollars going to organic and sustainable methodologies. At the very least, both hold equal promise for solving the problems facing agriculture, therefore, both should have equal access to the research dollars, both public and private, going to finding those solutions. Indeed, a very good argument can be made that more promise exists for potential solutions arising from organic research— solutions that won’t threaten our environment, our food supply or our market share the way GMO product development, masquerading as research, does now.



This article first appeared in the summer 2001 issue of the Spokane Tilth Journal, a sustainable food and farming quarterly published by Spokane Tilth, a chapter of Washington Tilth Association.





Why Create “RoundUp Ready” Wheat?

A primary justification for glyphosate resistant GMO wheat, if it is ever

introduced into commerce, is its potential role in "no- till" cropping systems.

No-till radically reduces the tilling of grain fields and promises to

reduce the loss of topsoil in grain growing systems, currently running at

10 - 20 tons of topsoil per acre per year. That’s undeniably a laudable

goal. Unfortunately for many of us who advocate for the reduction of

chemical use in agriculture, no-till cropping is heavily dependent on

herbicide use to kill weeds and standing crops before the seeding of

the next crop. No- till agriculture is being adopted throughout the world,

but is still considered by many to be an experimental method.

The herbicide of choice for no- till farmers is Roundup, which is considered

by some to be a "relatively benign" herbicide. Others aren't so

sure Roundup deserves such blind acceptance. Glyphosate, a persistent

herbicide, has been shown to cause genetic mutations in tests on

human, animal and plant cells (Vigfusson, 1980; Kale, 1995; Rank,

1993). The inert ingredients in Round-up can be more toxic than glyphosate.

In many of the formulations there are surfactants known as

polyoxyethyleneamines (POEA). These account for problems associated

with worker exposure. They are serious irritants of the respiratory

tract, eyes and skin and are contaminated with dioxane (not dioxin)

which is a suspected carcinogen. In California, glyphosate is the third

most commonly reported cause of pesticide related illness among agricultural

workers and it's the most frequent cause of complaints to the

UK's Health and Safety Executive's Pesticides Incident Appraisal

Panel. New formulations, with less irritating surfactants, have been developed

by Monsanto (e.g. Roundup Biactive), but cheaper, older and

more toxic preparations are still available. Of nine herbicides tested for

their toxicity to soil microorganisms, glyphosate was found to be the

second most toxic to a range of bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes and

yeasts that are essential to soil health. Glyphosate has been shown to

be very toxic to fish. Obviously, the increased application of glyphosate

due to the wide-spread adoption of Roundup Ready crops may not be

the best thing for agriculture, farm workers, consumers or the environment.

Thanks to People for Environmental Action and Children’s Health for

compiling this information.