Genetically Modified Wheat

Genetically Modified Wheat is wheat that has been genetically engineered by the direct manipulation of its genome utilizing biotechnology. It has also been termed GMO wheat, GMO standing for genetically modified organism. As of the year 2013, no GM wheat is grown commercially, but many field tests have been performed.

Wheat is an important domesticated grass that is used around the world for food, and its evolution has been influenced by human intervention since the dawn of agriculture.

Wheat is a natural hybrid that comes from interspecies breeding. It’s theorized that wheat’s ancestors hybridized naturally over millennia somewhere in West Asia, to produce natural polyploid hybrid, the best known of which are common wheat and durum wheat.

Interspecies transfer of genes continued to take place in farmers’ fields during the shift from the Paleolithic diet to the diet that was adopted by humans following the Neolithic Revolution, or first green revolution. Therefore, during the transition from a hunter-gatherer social structure to more agrarian societies, humans began to cultivate wheat and further transform it for their needs. Therefore, the social and cultural roots of humans and the development of wheat have been bound closely together since before history was recorded.

This process of wheat transformation has continued for millennia, resulting in a variety of wheat species that are grown for specific purposes and climates. Experiments by Stephen Wilson in 1873 resulted in yet another hybridization, the cross-pollination of rye and wheat to create triticale. Further transformations of wheat utilizing cytogenic hybridization methods enabled Norman Borlaug, father of the Second Green Revolution, to develop wheat species that would grow within harsh environments.

When recombinant DNA methods were developed in the 1980s, work began on producing the first transgenic wheat, coincident with the third Green Revolution. Of the three most significant cereals in the world, wheat was the last to be transformed by transgenic, biolistic methods in 1992, and by Agrobacterium methods in 1997, but unlike corn and rice, its widespread usage in the human diet has found slow acceptance because of cultural resistance.

As of the year 2013, 34 field trials of GM wheat have occurred in Europe and 419 have occurred in the US. Modifications tested include those to produce resistance to herbicides, create resistance to insects, and to fungal pathogens and viruses, tolerance to drought and resistance to salinity, and heat tolerant, increased content of glutenin to aid bakers, improved nutrition, improved qualities of use as biofuel feedstock, production of drugs by means of pharming, and yield increases.

No GM wheat has been approved to be released anywhere in the world as of 2013.

The transgenic wheat that was furthest developed was Monsanto’s MON 71800, which is glyphosate-resistant via a CP4/maize EPSPS gene. Monsanto received approval from the FDA for its usage in food, but withdrew its EPA application in 2004, so the product was never marketed. It also received approval for usage as food within Columbia.

Studies conducted by Monsanto showed that its nutritional components are equivalent to nontransgenic commercially available wheat, and animal studies that have utilized MON 71800 for feed have confirmed this. Environmental Risk assessments have been performed by Monsanto, and government regulatory agencies have approved its use in food.

However, farmers were worried about the potential loss of markets within Asia and Europe because of the public’s refusal of the end-product, so Monsanto withdrew its EPA application for Roundup Ready Wheat.

In 2010, Monsanto’s partner in India, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co, announced that it planned on seeking approval to market GM wheat in India in the next 3 to 5 years.

Image Caption: Wheat. Credit: Bluemoose/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)