Poop happens – what if it contains GM wheat?

The movement to label GMOs in states like Connecticut is just one of the fronts of the controversial issue. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ctsenatedems/ Some rights reserved.

The movement to label GMOs in states like Connecticut is just one of the fronts of the controversial issue. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ctsenatedems/ Some rights reserved.

Here's more on the divisive subject of genetically modified crops.

Recently the Ottawa Citizen's Tom Spears reported on concerns that GM wheat could have been spread beyond plots at Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm by something as simple as Canada geese eating it up and pooping it out elsewhere.

Internal email from Agriculture Canada addressed those concerns as the wheat in question was tested there in 2012. According to the Citizen, officials positioned the risk as minimal:

An Agriculture Canada spokesman echoed those talking points Tuesday, confirming that the wheat was an experimental variety designed to resist fungus, and adding that “the latest research indicates that there is minimal risk of dispersal of viable seeds through Canada geese droppings. Additionally, since the seeds were a spring wheat cultivar, even if the seeds were to survive a goose’s digestive system, they would be killed by winter frost.

You might wonder, why the fuss? After all, the chance of renegade spring wheat surviving an Ontario winter may be small. And GM corn, soy, canola and other staples are perfectly common – even dominant – in the North American food chain. This recent related story by Julie Grant offered anecdotal evidence that many consumers neither know nor care what's been artificially introduced in their food – milk, in that case. But there is this: while research into GM wheat has been happening for years, GM wheat is not yet approved for general cultivation – anywhere in the world.

Approval of GM wheat is broadly opposed in Canada because taking that step would endanger wheat sales to Europe and parts of Asia where GM products face more restrictions. For example, GMO crops are so unwelcome in Hungary that a suspect planting of GM corn was recently burned by authorities there. (Monsanto is disputing the seed in question was genetically modified in the first place, according to this from the Budapest Times.)

Containment remains a vexing genie-in-the-bottle quandary. What is acceptable risk if there may be no way to take something back, or contain unforeseen side-effects, after its release? Proponents of GM crops tend to minimize that problem. Opponents consider that aspect of GM crops a serious risk, one that can never be "undone".

This past May the discovery of unapproved GM wheat inexplicably growing in a Oregon farm field generated wide-spread news coverage, including this story from NPR. The why and how elements of that mystery continue to be explored. (See more on that along with a quick explanation of GM wheat at this Scientific American blog post.) Japan suspended western white wheat imports out of concern about the still-unexplained incident. Talks continue about lifting that ban.

Consider this Agence France-Presse report from July 18:

Faced with widespread concerns in Europe over its genetically modified foods, US agro-chemicals giant Monsanto said Thursday it was giving up on plans to grow new GM crops in the EU, which has held up approval for years.

"We will no longer be pursuing approvals for cultivation of new biotech crops in Europe," Monsanto said, adding that it would now focus on its conventional seeds business.

There's no indication that GM wheat from the Ottawa experimental plots "escaped" and survived. But taken to the broader level, it's hard to see how these issues get sorted out.

Geese aren't about to stop eating, flying and pooping. Today's food market sees refined ingredients cross borders willy-nilly and co-mingle in all sorts of shelf items. (As seen in the recent horse-meat scandal in Europe.)

The U.S. and Canada are big players on the global farm scene, and GM crops are very well-established here. Meanwhile, the European market seems doggedly skeptical about such products.

Even if GM crops are perfectly safe – as asserted by supporters – fear, perception or simple personal preference are powerful forces that do effect sales and policies.

It's a big challenge for growers, regulators and consumers – and a real mess for international trade.

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  1. GMO foods are perfectly safe (from a human health perspective) , but trade protectionism is something to worry about. If you cant sell your crop for whatever reason, there is no point in planting those seeds in the first place.

  2. GMO foods may be safe indeed for YOUR family to consume, but MY family wants to know, and chooses to avoid, these products whenever possible. This is even more true with bovine growth hormones. If push comes to shove, we will avoid the commercial grocery stores altogether, purchasing only from those who pledge to avoid the use of these technologies, and those locals who can be trusted, to fill our food needs.

  3. People make all sorts of choices about what they eat. Many of those choices are on religious or moral grounds