Science labs, mice, radiation, chemicals, test tubes and ... wheat?
That's an image commonly associated with the words “genetically modified wheat” and it can cause consumer watch activists to rally in Washington, shoppers to scan food labels and wheat producers to try to assure buyers their crops are safe.
“For all the fear that's associated with genetically modified wheat the reality is that there is no finding that it's any different than regular wheat,” said Brett Carver, professor of wheat breeding and genetics at Oklahoma State University.
Genetically modified wheat is engineered by the direct manipulation of its genome, the area of an organism that holds its hereditary information encoded by DNA.
The goal, Carver said, is to create wheat that is more tolerant of drought, heat and pesticides. Wheat can also be modified to utilize fertilizer and nitrogen more efficiently, resist disease or increase fiber and mineral content.
All of which, Carver said, could result in a higher yield.
Carver and a team of microbiologists genetically modify wheat at OSU's Noble Research Center in a highly controlled setting. The lab is one of thousands where the effects of genetically modifying wheat are studied.
The commercialization of genetically modified wheat has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. For now, the wheat is confined to field trials and laboratories.
But the prospect of growing more wheat on the same amount of land is promising for a growing global population. Agriculture production will need to increase by an estimated 60 percent globally and 77 percent in developing countries by 2050 to keep pace with population growth, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
“Wheat is essential to the global diet, representing 20 percent of the calories consumed by people around the world. But a number of serious issues, including more people and less farmland, threaten its supply,” said Steve Mercer, vice president of communications for U.S. Wheat Associates.
In Oklahoma, about 5.2 million acres of hard red winter wheat are planted every year, said Mike Schulte, executive director of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission. Wheat is the state's largest cash crop, producing about $1 billion dollars annually. Oklahoma exports about half the wheat grown in the state with the rest used locally, Schulte said.
“I don't think biotechnology is the only solution to feeding the increasing population but it's worth looking into,” Schulte said.
With Oklahoma often ranking in the top five wheat-producing states, genetically modifying the grain to produce higher yields could theoretically benefit the state's economy, Schulte said.
“Our economy could be strengthened but only if genetically modified wheat is accepted into the world marketplace,” Schulte said. “There are some misconceptions out there that we have genetically modified wheat in the market right now and that's simply not true. Doing so would harm our economy.”
A glimpse of the backlash that could result from introducing genetically modified wheat into the global market before U.S. trade partners have agreed to accept it happened after an Oregon farmer found genetically modified wheat on his farm.
After noticing that some of his wheat was resistant to pesticides, the farmer sent samples to Oregon State University, where scientists confirmed it was a strain developed by the Missouri-based Monsanto.
Japan and South Korea put embargoes on U.S. soft white wheat, the kind exported from the Pacific Northwest and used to make cookies, pastries and noodles. The price fell by about 50 cents a bushel, said Blake Rowe, the Oregon Wheat Commission's chief executive officer.
Monsanto officials suspect sabotage, because the wheat was not distributed evenly throughout the field but was found in patches. Farmers across the country offered other possible explanations.
Some suggested birds ate the genetically modified wheat in one of Monsanto's controlled field tests and then flew over the Oregon farm, leaving their droppings and undigested genetically modified seed behind. Others suspected human error.
“It could have been sabotage or it could have been a prank. People do this sort of thing to mess things up; to get the kind of attention that's resulted from this,” said Raymond Sidwell, an Oklahoma wheat and cattle farmer.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service found no other genetically modified wheat in the U.S. market and said it was likely an isolated occurrence. After the USDA released its findings in June, Japan and South Korea lifted their embargoes.
Though it created little more than a hiccup in the overall wheat market, it did pose the question: would commercializing genetically modified wheat benefit or harm consumers?
Wheat is more likely to be consumed directly by humans than crops such as soybeans, which are typically used to feed livestock first and consumed by humans through the consumption of meat.
Consumption of a genetically modified crop can be an issue when it has been exposed to an excessive amount of pesticides, said Bill Freese, a Center for Food Safety policy adviser. The center is a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.
Freese is not concerned about the safety of genetically modified wheat but rather the chain of events that could result from creating a species that is extremely tolerant to pesticides.
“It would be like a super wheat,” Freese said. “The more tolerant it is to pesticides the more pesticides will have to be used and the more likely farmers and consumers will be exposed.”
Whether wheat is modified to tolerate higher levels of pesticide or create a larger yield, Mercer thinks it's only a matter of time until producers turn to biochemistry.
“It's expected that 40 percent more wheat will need to be produced to feed the population by 2050,” Mercer said. “Advances like biotechnology will help us grow more and better wheat with less impact on the environment. I think it could be commercially available in the next 10 years.”