Should we fear Oregon genetic wheat find?

By Terry Wanzekwheat
North Dakota state senator & Truth About Trade & Technology Board Member
Article first appeared in Wall Street Journal

When a farmer discovered traces of genetically modified wheat in a remote field in eastern Oregon in April, he found the agricultural equivalent of a needle in a haystack—a few stalks amid more than half a billion acres of conventional wheat planted and harvested in the past dozen years.

The detection made headlines around the world not because the needle was hard to find but because it wasn’t supposed to exist at all. Genetically modified wheat was developed, tested and proven safe for human consumption years ago. Yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture has never approved it for commercial use.

According to the USDA, the last approved field-test planting of GM wheat in Oregon was in 2001. The most recent field test anywhere in the U.S. was in 2005. Since then, American farmers have grown more than 500 million acres of wheat, an area larger than Alaska.

Amid this enormous bounty, one Oregon farmer spotted a handful of wheat stalks growing where he hadn’t planted any. He soon found that they were herbicide resistant and sent them to a scientist at Oregon State University, who quickly determined that they were genetically modified.

As a North Dakota wheat producer, the first thing I want you to know is that GM wheat doesn’t put anyone at risk. The USDA made this clear in a statement shortly after the discovery: “The detection of this wheat variety doesn’t pose a safety concern.”

The biotechnology in question—herbicide resistance that helps crops fight weeds—is well understood and commonly used in corn and soybeans. We eat safe and nutritious food derived from it every day. This trait wasn’t commercialized in wheat for the simple economic reason that foreign buyers would refuse it because they have not yet embraced farming’s biotech revolution.

So the biggest question is not whether the GM wheat found in Oregon is safe—we know with confidence that it is—but rather how it got there in the first place. Authorities must launch a thorough investigation that examines every possibility, from the misplacement of seeds during field tests years ago to the survival of a few stray plants in the wild.

And let’s not discount the possibility of mischief: The enemies of biotech crops are thrilled by this discovery. Last week, Monsanto Co., MON -1.54% which developed the GM wheat, refused to rule out the possibility of sabotage.

This episode teaches us two important lessons. The first is that we have an outstanding system of food regulation in the U.S., and what appears to be an isolated event in Oregon has moved from a local farmer to a state researcher to the USDA for verification testing.

The second is that we have nothing to fear from biotech wheat. This is a safe product. Approving it for commercial use would allow wheat farmers to grow more food and reduce their production costs. These savings ultimately would find their way into grocery stores, where consumers would pay less for bread, cereal, pasta and other products that come from wheat.

America’s farmers are already planting fewer acres of wheat because it is a less predictable crop than corn and soybeans, which have seen yields improve since biotech traits of insect protection and herbicide resistance were introduced in the mid-1990s.

On my farm in North Dakota, we used to grow wheat on as much as 80% of our acreage. Now we’re down to about 10%, mainly because we prefer the advantages of biotechnology in corn and soybeans. My neighbors have been doing the same.

Convincing Americans about the benefits of biotech crops never has been the main issue. The U.S., along with Canada and most of the Western hemisphere, already has accepted biotechnology as an excellent tool option for farmers and consumers.

It is time for the rest of the world to catch up.

When news of the GM wheat discovery hit the media, our buyers in Japan and Korea immediately suspended purchases and promised to test samples. Europe said that it would increase its testing of wheat as well.

They almost certainly won’t find anything. It looks highly unlikely that any GM wheat entered the food supply. Korea’s first test results appeared to confirm this.

Yet the time to commercialize GM wheat is past due. The sooner everyone stops fussing over what is a safe and healthy product, the sooner farmers and consumers all over the world will benefit.

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