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Monday, June 3, 2013

Rogue Wheat Now Found In 127 Countries!

Rogue wheat is growing in wheat fields in 127 countries around the world! Should consumers be concerned?

Ok, I'm indulging in a poor imitation of the emotive language common in sensational writings about food issues. What I said in the paragraph above is all true, it's just misleading because of a lack of context. After the "crisis" of glyphosate tolerant wheat being found in an Oregon field, I thought it would be useful to put that event into perspective.  So...

Wheat 1.0

Wheat is largely a "saved seed crop," meaning that farmers set aside some of the grain from each harvest to use as seed the next year.  This is a practical thing for these growers to do because planting rates of wheat seed are very high (e.g. 80 or more lbs/acre) so it would be very expensive to haul bags or bins of seed very far.  Also, except for a little bit in Europe, wheat is not a hybrid crop, like corn, so it is not necessary to buy new seed each year to get the highest yielding types.  If a farmer plants the wheat from last year's crop, he/she will get the same kind of wheat in the new harvest... well, mostly.  Wheat is not pollinated by insects, but rather by wind, so pollen can blow in from another field where the variety might be different.  This is something like a 1% issue.  The wheat can get mixed over time because of little amounts left in combines or grain wagons.  Also, weed seeds can build up over time - that is definitely rogue genetics!  Over time, if only saved seed is used, the field will represent a mix of genetics.

The Genes My Friend Are Blowin' In The Wind

This "genetic drift" is problematic for wheat producers, because unlike some other major crops, there are extremely important quality differences between types of wheat. These differences are related to genetics, and the price a farmer can get for the crop often depends on being able to achieve certain standards.  There are specialists within the field of food science called "Cereal Chemists" who measure all sorts of properties of wheat to characterize lots of wheat/flour so that bakers and others can get the results they desire. (When I first heard the term cereal chemist I thought they were saying "serial chemist:" e.g. someone who keeps committing chemistry!)

Wheat is Not Just Wheat

Wheat is definitely not just one commodity.  There are very different wheats that have been bred over the centuries for very different purposes.  The major categories of wheat are "Hard" or "Soft," "Red" or "White," "Winter" or "Summer," and "Normal" vs "Durum."  So for baking an artisan bread or making pizza crust where "dough strength" is important you want a "Hard Red Spring Wheat."  If you want to make Asian soft noodles you want a "Soft White Spring Wheat."  If you want to make pasta, you want "Spring Durum Wheat."

The various types of wheat achieve their best quality in different geographic/climatic regions, but even within a region and a type of wheat, there are differences in quality based on the variety and the weather in a given growing season.  If you are a wheat farmer growing for any of those (or many other) specific markets, you have to be concerned about the purity of the genetics of the wheat in your field.  If you plant a high quality variety for a specific use, you can only replant with saved seed for a few years before genetic and/or variety drift - "rogue genetics" if you will - renders your crop of too poor quality for your market.

How The Wheat Industry Manages This Issue

This issue of genetics has been a very long-term challenge for wheat growers.  Long ago, the industry set up a system to deal with it.  Crop Improvement Associations were established in each state to oversee the careful production of specific varieties with enough isolation from other fields of wheat and with inspection to insure that the resulting "certified seed" is genetically pure enough.  In fact, there is a specialized verb, roguing, which refers to eliminating the genetic off-types in a seed field.  This is just part of how real seed production is done.

Certain farmers in every geography specialize in growing this seed, and they then sell it to their neighbors with a small premium above commodity grain prices to pay for the effort and the testing.  Because of this system, wheat growers can deliver wheat with specific quality requirements in spite of the unavoidable genetic drift in their fields.  If the quality requirements are super exacting (e.g. those who grow the varieties for Wheaties and other branded, specialty wheat products), it is often grown under a contract which requires that new certified seed is used for every planting.  Unlike corn and soy where the harvest is typically commingled in one big, efficient "river" of grain, for wheat, lot-by-lot "identity preservation" is common. Reliably delivering specific types of wheat to different customers is completely feasible.

The 2002 Intimidation of the North American Wheat Industry Didn't Have To Go Down Like That

As I've described in a previous post, GMO wheat was on the verge of commercialization around 2002 when European and Japanese buyers threatened to boycott all North American wheat if any commercial GMO wheat was planted. Threatened with the loss of lucrative markets, the US and Canadian growers reluctantly asked Syngenta and Monsanto to halt their commercialization plans.  What is sad is that standard certified seed and identity preservation mechanisms could have been employed to allow North American wheat growers to both enjoy the benefits of plant biotechnology and still meet the non-GMO demands of some of their customers.  All that would have been needed was a rational threshold for "adventitious presence" of tiny amounts of other genetics - something that is already commonplace for "rogue" genetics of other types.  When European millers buy Hard Red Spring Wheat from Canada or North Dakota, there are defined standards for how much of something else could be present because of carry-over from bins or harvesting equipment, etc.  In the grain industry it is not normal to have a zero tolerance - that just isn't practical.  The same should have been the case for non-GMO wheat.

The current "rogue GMO wheat" debacle in the Pacific North West never needed to happen.  All the regulatory approvals were on track to be granted and sizable field trials had been conducted.  Efforts were certainly made to prevent any gene flow from the tests to other wheat, but it would not have been some disaster if it had happened.  Again, the system was in place to manage that genetic issue just like every other one in this complex crop. Instead, the entire process was derailed setting things up for this "crisis" in Oregon today.  It will only be a crisis if the Asian customers respond irrationally.  Unfortunately, this is what they seem to be doing.

So yes, there is "rogue wheat" in fields in 127 countries.  Using time-tested protocols we can still have wheat that is genetically pure enough to make all the delicious foods we make from different kinds of wheat.  What happened in Oregon need not disrupt that if the customers will allow the industry to deal with it the way they deal with all genetic drift issues.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at
#GMOReason #wheat    @grapedoc

Photo of "Palouse Wheat Field Sunrise" from the Charles Knowles Gallery

I can't resist putting some data in a post, so here is a graph of world wheat planting based on FAOSTATS


  1. Just some technicalities, but wheat is primarily self-pollinated, with most pollination occurring before the anthers extrude and the flowers (florets) open, which then allows for pollen to be carried by wind. So cross pollination by wind is usually less than 5%, unless some male sterility from environmental factors like freeze damage or drought stress cause the florets to remain open longer.

    Even though a wheat variety is highly inbred, and very uniform, it is not necessarily made up of identical clone plants. For most varieties there will be some variation for minor traits that remain in the population, but overall, the plant types are very uniform in performance and appearance. Over time, genetic drift (unrelated to out-crossing, which is what you refer to as drift) occurs as a result of environmental factors exerting natural selection pressure on the population. Eventually, the variety may deviate from the original variety, without any out-crossing or contamination. This is why breeders and parent seed producers have to maintain breeder's seed of the variety, by planting in isolation and roguing any off-types to maintain the parental source.

    In addition to any genetic drift, out-crossing, or variety contamination, farmers buy new seed to avoid seed transmitted diseases or the replanting of weed seed that is difficult for the farmer to get cleaned out of his saved seed.

    Also, the great majority of wheat IS co-mingled like corn and soy, but within the individual market classes.

  2. Thanks for this article Steve. I followed your entries in the OregonLive chat about the GM wheat and you were one of the few non-loons involved in that chat. Love your blog!

  3. Julie,
    Thanks. I gave up after a while, but it was worth a try. Yea, it was like Portlandia without any of the humor!

  4. Thanks from a french woman reader, I translate your article for my blogspot.

  5. Your point of view seems to be that a little bit Of GMO wheat in the general wheat harvest is ok. Just a little bit is all it takes to change the genetics of your digestive flora. The ensuing inflammation stays after the offending food is gone. Your article feels like a Monsanto soft-sell attempting to make us believe a little bit of contamination is ok. If the contamination was e-coli would it be acceptable also or would you try to stop the contamination?

    1. Arni,
      Why do you think that DNA would effect the genetics of your digestive flora any differently than all the other DNA you eat including tons of microbial DNA from things growing on and in everything you eat? DNA is all made of G,T,A and C and that in an engineered plant is not different. So far, there is absolutely no evidence of any "contamination" of the commercial wheat supply. By the way, there could frequently be some E.coli on your food with no ill effects. It is just when the populations are very high - usually because someone let it grow for some time. When something like produce is washed with chlorine etc it only kills maybe 99% of what is there. Zero is not something that is necessary in many cases. And no, I don't work for Monsanto.

    2. Steve,
      I think you want 'affect the genetics' instead of "effect".
      But I think you may have overlooked a more important opportunity in responding to Arni. The DNA of the GMO wheat is not the immediate cause for concern (at least for the point Arni raises). The protein(s) made by the plant in response to having this DNA might be more likely causes for intestinal issues. The DNA for Bt doesn't kill insects that eat Bt GMO plants. The protein does.
      So for the GMO wheat - the protein might serve as an antigen (DNA sequences only rarely serve as antigen) causing an allergic reaction in some people (I know of no evidence of this - just that it is hypothetically possible)... and so long as I'm on a hypothetical bent - it may be possible for the protein product of the introduced gene to have some impact on the gut microflora (and again - I've no evidence it has).

      I still agree there likely isn't much danger from the wheat... but giving the wrong answer isn't helping the cause.

      Oh - and on the E. coli issue - there are different genetic types of E. coli, just like there are different varieties of wheat. Some of them are very dangerous, others not so much.

    3. Grammar,
      I get confused about the affect/effect thing. Thanks. As for allergenicity, the protein in Roundup Ready plants is the CP4 version of the HPSPS enzyme. It was developed by Lucca Comai who got his PhD in the lab next to mine at UC Davis. He was working for a small staru-up called Calgene in Davis when he found it. It is probably one of the most studied proteins in history and certainly the most widely used one in biotechnology. It is definitely not an allergen. Yes, most E.coli are benign or beneficial - only certain strains are dangerous

  6. I concur that your article is a soft sell on behalf of Monsanto’s untested and unproven products, now foisted on the guinea pig public. I have seen these arguments repeated in other areas, such as: Fukushima radiation is no more harmful than a few extra dental x-rays; or what’s wrong with a little radiation – you already get radiation every time you go out in the sunshine! Authors imply that the Fukushima disaster was a blessing and that we would benefit by even more meltdowns.

    You reply to Arni with a question but not an answer. That’s an evasive tactic that is often used too. Such as: Why do think that spraying chemtrails is harmful, after all you wash your clothes in chemicals don’t you? What’s wrong with Vioxx, after all they named it Vigor and hey who doesn’t want more vigor? (The well-studied, thoroughly tested, approved and totally safe Vioxx was removed from the market after having a “few” slight side effects and adverse reactions, like about 30,000 heart attacks and sudden cardiac arrests).

    Toxic chemicals for fracking in our water supply, gross radiation, manufactured bio-warfare disease, poison vaccinations, fake food, terminator seeds, corporate ownership of water, air and life itself, - anything for a buck! Greed! Even the bucks are fake fiat currency. Maybe you don’t work “directly” for Monsanto, but maybe for one of their PR agencies, or a subsidiary. We’ll never know.

    1. Mitch, your response is a pitch-perfect example of the kind of rhetoric that drove me to change my mind about GMOs: paranoid, uninformed, snarky, and apocalyptic.

    2. Uh Mitch,
      It seems to me that Steve was questioning a statement by Arni that was basically an assumption presented as fact. Asking for clarification is not evasive, especially since Arni appears to have no knowledge about how a GMO plant would change the gut flora. Your effort to pin your chemical spraying scenario to what he said is clearly a strawman.

  7. I've searched and searched and can't find the report concerning transfer of genes to digestive flora. The summary said that after eating GMOs and then stopping, the body still creates the toxin Bt uses to kill insects. The only mechanism by which this can happen is if the toxin creating gene had transferred to the digestive flora. The toxin creates holes in the insect's stomachs, which is what it does in a smaller degree to us. The then escaping larger incompletely prepared for the body food particles leave the digestive tract and aren't recognized by the body so are attacked as foreign bodies. Thus inflammation and alleries arise.

    In regards to the safety of Roundup ready plants, such as this wheat, I refer to the following paper and give you the abstract and then the full URL to the pdf:

    "Abstract: Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup®, is the most popular herbicide used worldwide. The industry asserts it is minimally toxic to humans, but here we argue otherwise. Residues are found in the main foods of the Western diet, comprised primarily of sugar, corn, soy and wheat. Glyphosate's inhibition of cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes is an overlooked component of its toxicity to mammals. CYP enzymes play crucial roles in biology, one of which is to detoxify xenobiotics. Thus, glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of other food borne chemical residues and environmental toxins. Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body. Here, we show how interference with CYP enzymes acts synergistically with disruption of the biosynthesis of aromatic amino acids by gut bacteria, as well as impairment in serum sulfate transport. Consequences are most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. We explain the documented effects of glyphosate and its ability to induce disease, and we show that glyphosate is the “textbook example” of exogenous semiotic entropy: the disruption of homeostasis by environmental toxins."


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