Scientists have announced that genetically engineered wheat, barley and rice could be commercially available within the next 3 years. James Cook, wheat scientist for Washington State University, said Monsanto’s Roundup Ready wheat, used to control weeds, could be available to farmers by 2003. It would join corn, soybeans and cotton, which have already been genetically engineered into specialized versions.

Cook has promised that the wheat industry will not repeat the mistakes made with StarLink corn. Instead, the genes inserted into the food products will receive FDA approval for human consumption first, so that no real effort need be made by the industry to prevent them from spreading far and wide.

“StarLink was a wake-up call for us,” he said, during a panel discussion at the American Farm Bureau Federation convention. “Because of StarLink, science has really had to clean up its act.”

StarLink, which was engineered to repel pests, was approved by U.S. regulators only for animal feed because of fears that the it could cause allergic reactions in humans. However, traces of StarLink corn have been found in grocery store products here and in Japan. “Because of StarLink, we would never push for anything just for feed and not for food,” Cook said.

There are no plans, however, to do any studies that might tell what the long-term effect of genetically altered crops might be, or whether or not they might lead to negative mutations, or even what will happen when crops engineered with different genes end up evolving together into unplanned strains.

Ellen Terpstra, president of the USA Rice Institute, said Aventis, the creators of StarLink, expected to unveil Liberty Herbicide, the first genetically modified rice, to consumers by 2003. This variety would be used to repel red rice, a weed that is a significant problem in the South. “In the wake of StarLink, Aventis has assured the industry it would not release it if the market was not ready for it,” Terpstra said.

Both scientists agreed that genetically modified wheat and rice will need to be segregated because foreign buyers, like Japan and Europe, have banned biotech crops due to consumer fears. So far, however, farmers and scientists have admitted that they are unable to prevent StarLink corn from cross-pollinating with regular corn or from being mixed with other strains of corn in grain elevators. Will they be able to stop these new wheat and rice strains from contaminating regular crops? So far, there is no evidence of this at all.

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