Against the grain

Threats of genetically engineered wheat

Feature story - 22 November, 2002
One of humanity's most important staple foods, wheat, is being targeted by genetic engineers.

Wheat.

Wheat forms an important part of many people's diet around the world. It has enormous economic, nutritional and cultural significance. The commercial introduction of genetically engineered (GE) wheat would have significant environmental and economical consequences.

The impact to farmers

The introduction of GE wheat would bring little or no benefit for farmers, while it would cause significant ecological and economical disruption. Industry's promises of increased yields, decreased pesticide use and overall economic gains haven't materialised in other GE crops, and it's unlikely that they will do for this crop. Instead, many farmers growing already commercialised Roundup Ready crops faced yield losses, increased costs from problems with herbicide resistant weeds and became increasingly dependent on toxic chemicals.

Market rejections

Major markets for US and Canadian wheat exports have already expressed their rejection of GE wheat. According to Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) estimates, customers representing two-thirds of Canada's wheat market do not wish to purchase or receive any GE wheat. If commercialised, 100% segregation of GE wheat will be impossible to achieve in practise, making contamination during transport and handling inevitable.

Even though Monsanto is hedging on when the GE wheat will be marketed, it's herbicide resistant Roundup Ready wheat seems to be closest to commercialisation in the USA and Canada.

The end of natural wheat?

Besides the environmental threat of increased use of toxic herbicides, the gene flow to wild related species, non-GE wheat or unrelated organisms, secondary impacts on biodiversity as a result of altered management practices and impacts on non-target organisms, are of serious concern.

Because wheat is grown on such a vast scale globally, any adverse impacts could be enormous. Thus, the environmental release and the commercial production of GE wheat for food should be prevented.