Wheat: The New Frontier

William Wroblewski | 03.15.2011

Earlier this year, the US Department of Agriculture opened the door for the unregulated use of Monsanto’s genetically modified alfalfa.  Made by the organization’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the decision was backed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who claimed Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditional varieties. To some, this came as a surprise. As recently as December 30, Vilsack had acknowledged, in an “Open Letter to Stakeholders,” that cross-pollination presents a threat to non-GM farmers. The Secretary’s turnaround on the issue suggests a noticeable level of pressure coming from Big Ag, which appears also to have a firm hold on the White House.

The consequences of deregulating GM alfalfa will be swiftly felt. According to the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based agricultural research and investigative organization, Land O’ Lakes subsidiary Forage Genetics could plant some of its reported millions of pounds of Monsanto-developed GM alfalfa as early as this spring. Controlling the spread of these new strains will be difficult for organic farmers, in much the same way we have seen in the corn industry. In many ways, it will be even worse. Alfalfa is an eager pollinator, and genetic material is easily transferred across varieties. As an important source of protein and roughage for grazing cattle, alfalfa is a key crop in the US’s farm economy, and threatening organic crops with GM strains will have profound effects on the organic dairy and beef industries. With little to no protection for their organic grazing land, organic cattle farmers will lose the very thing that brings value to their products. With such threats looming, the Cornucopia Institute, the Center for Food Safety, and others have been fighting Monsanto in the courts, and have not given up.

Over the past few weeks, the deregulation of GM crops has been a theme at the USDA. Shortly after the news about alfalfa, we saw the same doors open to other crops such as the partial deregulation of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets and Syngenta’s corn amylase, used for ethanol production.

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Amazingly, one crop remains beyond the reach of Monsanto and eager deregulators: wheat.  In 2002 Monsanto submitted a GM wheat variety for approval in North America. The focus of this effort was the development of a fungicide-resistant wheat variety able to withstand conventional methods of controling Fusarium, a fugal disease that can lead to small, stunted grains or no productive grains at all. It is believed that some Fusariumstrains can produce mycotoxins that remain in food products, leading to chronic and acute diseases.

The pro-GMO site GMO Compassi claims there are few other effective strategies to prevent the spread of this blight. While Fusarium can be difficult to control, particularly in damp growing seasons, growers are finding success by changing irrigation patterns anddeploying crop rotation practices that incorporate crops unaffected by the disease, such as canola and various legumes. Despite these alternatives, GMO Compass and Monsanto unsurprisingly remain committed to genetic modification as the only answer in winning the fight against Fusarium.

Monsanto’s effort to deregulate GM wheat was sidelined in 2004, as Big Ag succumbed to pressure from wheat producers, consumers, and food activists. But the fight continues. In November of last year, Claire CaJacob, global wheat technology executive at Monsanto, was quoted as saying that “It’s the right time [for GM wheat].” To be sure, changes in attitude at the Department of Agriculture as directed by the White House and Big Ag, and the resulting movement toward deregulating GM food crops, do not bode well for the organic wheat movement.

But resistance on the ground continues. There is a burgeoning movement committed to growing and selling local wheat products in farmers markets alongside the increasingly commonplace organic vegetables and grass-fed meats. Groups like the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project are uniting farmers, millers and bakers under the common cause of bringing back regional grain husbandry. Indeed, this movement spans the entire wheat food chain, and is working diligently to retain and rebuild U.S. wheat culture. As Sabine Hrechdakian, publicity manager of New York City’s Greenmarket recently said, “Grains are the new frontier” of the organic movement.

William Wroblewski is a freelance journalist, writer, and video producer living in San Francisco, CA. He is currently working on a documentary film about the development of micro-economies by organic and heirloom wheat farmers, millers, and bread bakers along America’s Eastern Seaboard. For more information, visit http://www.thewheatmovie.wordpress.com and follow The Wheat Movie on Facebook.

i. While GMO Compass purports to present “the work of independent science journalists,” the site is run by Genius, a leading biotech PR firm based in Germany.