Best Food Facts recently received a question from Peg about genetic modification of wheat. Peg asked, “I have seen information about wheat that indicates genetic modification was taking place MANY years ago and that our current wheat crops are a result of that modification. Many sources state that there are inherent problems with this wheat. Would you please clarify?”
To get clarification on Peg’s question, we reached out to Dr. Stephen Baenziger, Nebraska Wheat Growers Presidential Chair and former Eugene W. Price Distinguished Professor of Small Grains Breeding and Genetics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Dr. Baenziger: “Genetic modification of wheat began thousands of years ago. It is believed that durum (pasta) wheat was formed by genetic modification 500,000 years ago. Common (bread) wheat was formed by genetic modification 8,000 – 10,000 years ago. Most people refer to these genetic modifications as “domestications” – basically, the crop being developed to serve humankind.
“Wheat is not native to the United States. It was brought to the United States with the colonists who brought their food crops with. As new immigrants came to the United States, new strains of wheat were brought. For example, the most widely grown wheat in the United States was turkey red wheat, which was brought by Mennonite farmers who farmed in Kansas in the 1870s. The Mennonite farmers were fleeing Russia to avoid religious persecution.
“Wheat breeding in the modern sense began in the late 1800s and was done extensively in the 1900s and today. Fortunately, wheat has extensive collections of the old and modern strains. For example, we grow turkey red wheat today to compare to our modern cultivars. It helps us see what improvements have been made over time. What is most important is that today’s wheat is a very safe product and we can provide samples of strains of wheat that were first brought to the United States over a century ago for comparison. Wheat breeders and our families eat the bread and other wheat products from the strains we develop, so we’re dedicated to making a product that is wholesome, high quality and most importantly, safe.”