European Union: This organic wheat is definitely a GMO

Renan Winter Wheat

Nothing seems to upset those arguing about GMOs more than debating the definition of the term “GMO” itself. Most proponents of the technology argue that GMO stands for “genetically modified organism”, which scientifically would apply to all breeding methods. A display in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History I saw once even mentions genetic modifications in regards to natural selection.

Most of those who oppose the use of genetic engineering argue that the term “GMO” specifically means genes introduced from other organisms, but has expanded to include gene editing and cisgenic techniques.

One breeding technique, mutagenesis, causes some of the most confusion. Applying pressure on an organism using chemicals and/or radiation to speed up artificial selection, mutagenesis dates back nearly 75 years. It can be used to create everything from red grapefruits to herbicide tolerant crops.

And this is where the argument over “what is a GMO” breaks down. Even the anti-GMO movement can’t decide. The Non-GMO Project does not consider mutagenic crops to be GMOs for their purposes, while French anti-GMO activists have actively sought to ban these “hidden GMOs”.

A major court decision in the European Union may have settled the debate once and for all. In July, the Court of Justice of the European Union declared:

organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs

The ruling goes on to explain that GMOs created via mutagenesis with a history are exempt from the regulation applying to transgenic crops, while newer mutagenic techniques are not. Individual countries would be free to regulate old mutagenic techniques in compliance with EU law.

In other words, crops created with mutagenesis are definitely GMO. But only newer varieties would be regulated as such.

Writing for Grist, Nathanel Johnson explains the history of ‘Renan’ the organic GMO wheat:

….there’s a French variety of wheat called Renan which is especially useful to farmers who don’t use pesticides because it is very disease-resistant….
Renan was made by breeders who coaxed the genetic material from wheat, and two other distantly related species, to combine. To do this, they bathed the plants in colchicine, which keeps chromosomes from hooking back up after they split during cell division — doubling the number of chromosomes in the plants. Later, they exposed the plants to X-rays to scramble some of the DNA, but eventually they got the combination of traits that they wanted….
Renan hasn’t undergone testing because the European Union decided that GMOs created with these techniques were exempt. There were just too many good crops coming from these techniques — and already in circulation — to subject them all to the scrutiny that has thwarted many transgenic crops….

This is perhaps why when the average person is asked “What is a GMO”, no one is quite sure.