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Has that Oklahoma waving wheat been modified?

Oklahoma scientists consider pros, cons of genetically modified wheat.
BY NASREEN IQBAL niqbal@opubco.com Modified: August 20, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: August 19, 2013

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.”