The short answer? No.
While Monsanto is currently pushing new GM wheat with the USDA, there is no commercially available wheat that is technically genetically modified. But while modern wheat can dodge the “GMO” label for now, the devil’s in the details.
To understand the complexities in the details, a modern urbanite needs to understand a little bit about farming traditions. My own eyes were opened to this just recently...let me quickly share the story.
I was on a field tour in southern Ontario with a small group of folks learning about heritage seed. The farmer looked on as we examined a few modest rows of beans. Some plants looked strong and healthy while others looked, well, pathetic.
These few rows were the second season of an experiment. While on a trip to Latin America, our farmer friend had bought a handful of beans at a village market and stuffed them in his pocket.
“They’re delicious, I know chefs here who are always looking for them, but you just can’t get these here.” Why? ”First of all we don’t eat that many beans in our culture. And, the other big thing is, they’re not supposed to grow here.”
After all, these were beans from a tropical climate and we were in an open field in Canada.
He went on to explain that instead of eating those beans, he planted the handful from his pocket in the ground just to see what would happen. Low and behold, he had a few germinate and grow to produce new seed. Just a few.
This crop we were looking at was the second season of growth, selected from those few beans that grew the first year. Now he had two full rows and greatly improved germination.
He smiled. “I think that’s pretty good considering it’s not ‘supposed’ be growing here at all.”
We were witnessing an ancient practice at work. His beans are adapting to the climate and soil with a little help from the farmer. The seeds grow (or don’t) and natural genetic differences vary the success of individual plants. The farmer selects the best and replants them the next season. Those seeds grow and the process begins again.
With wheat this tradition has played out over millennia—adapting to different climate, soils and cuisines. Sometimes a crop could cross-breed with a wild (landrace) variety, sometimes a drought or infestation would leave only a few of the most hearty plants. A wheat variety was the work of generations of farmers passing on the seeds and traditions to the next generation.
After thousands of years of adaptation, seed saving and the occasional cross-breeding, we had a staggering variety of grains regionally adapted to different climates, soils and cuisines. Just among wheats, the variation was unbelievable—Hungarian Banatka, Black Emmer, Rouge de Bordeaux, Warthog, Red Fife, White Sonora, Marquis. It was variable from place to place, farm to farm, even year to year.
The system worked, and it was tasty. It had natural checks to ensure the needs of the people and the needs of the land remained in balance.
But in the early 20th century that all changed.
YIELD, YIELD, YIELD!
During the so-called “Green Revolution” of the 20th century, science and technology were unleashed to “improve” wheat with the grandiose vision of feeding the world. That basically meant one thing: yield. Scientifically managed hybridization, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and industrial scale irrigation—these were the tools of modernity that made it all possible.
Fertilizers removed the natural limitations the land placed on crops. The soil could be changed chemically to meet the demands of the plant. But this also resulted in a boom of weeds and pests requiring the application of newly invented pesticides and herbicides.
In addition to changing the soil, wheat itself could be modified quickly to meet the demands of industrial farming equipment and protein quotas. This included techniques like repetitive cross-back breeding, chemical sterilization, and gamma/x-ray seed mutation. Its not “genetic modification” by definition: There’s no fish or algae spliced into wheat’s DNA-- but it was radical modification.
So is modern wheat genetically modified?
No. While true GMO wheats are sneaking out of test plots here and there, modern or “common” wheat is not technically genetically modified. However, it was created through intensive scientific hybridization to grow in a synthetic environment and designed to behave more like a chemical than food.
Not technically genetically modified, but genetically alien.
Yield has certainly increased spectacularly. So has diabetes, obesity, gluten sensitivities, cancers. We've managed to feed the world (for now) with a food system creating people who are obese, yet suffering from malnutrition! Our once noble farms have depleted soils, degraded nutrients and a staggering lack of diversity of crops and the people who grow them. The loss of flavour is another tragedy entirely! (That will be taken up in another blog post.)
It’s not too late
This all happened in about 60 years. And that’s the good news. Due to the diligence and foresight of a handful of historians, researchers and stalwart farmers, we still have many wonderful varieties of wheat that were grown before the “green revolution."
But the clock is ticking. Without a consumer interest in heritage and heirloom wheats we may lose them altogether. True GMO wheat is ready to make it’s debut, and food trends like “gluten-free” and the paleo-diet are encouraging people to give up on wheat altogether. With each passing season, farmers are less inclined to gamble their livelihood to plant heritage grain.
It’s up to us to preserve our past and pioneer a new way forward.