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America can't ignore risks to trade of genetically modified crops

Posted: June 17, 2013 - 12:01am

The following editorial appeared in the Kansas City Star:

In this era of global markets, a surprising discovery thousands of miles away has serious repercussions for farmers in Kansas and Missouri. It began with wheat on a farm in eastern Oregon.

This farm was like most others in America, though the farmer might have been a little more curious than some people. A few months ago, he sprayed one of his fields with an herbicide, and he was surprised when a few wheat plants survived. Unsure how they resisted modern chemistry, he sent samples to Oregon State University.

Scientists ran tests and, amazed at the results, ran them again. The wheat had been genetically modified. It was Roundup-resistant, a strain tested a decade ago by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. The company had never sold this particular strain and had thought it had kept it out of the wild.

News quickly spread. Japan suspended some import orders. Other countries demanded more rigorous testing before wheat delivery from the United States.

Monsanto and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have tested modified wheat and other agricultural products for years and concluded that foreign fears are unfounded. They say genetically modified organisms are safe to human health and the environment. Yet dissenting science and gaps in the research persist and justify some skepticism. One frequent warning from opponents has always been that genes can escape into the wild and behave unpredictably. The incident in Oregon seems to bear that out.

If modified foods can feed the world and thrive despite climate change, that would count as spectacular scientific success. If they pop up where they do not belong, they become the “frankenfood” that opponents warn about.

American farmers export $8 billion worth of wheat annually. When countries delay or cancel orders, markets dry up and prices decline. Increased testing alone can create an expensive barrier that tips the balance for farmers working on narrow margins. That affects not just Oregon but also growers in Kansas, Missouri and every other wheat state.

An Elkhart, Kan., farmer already has filed a lawsuit against Monsanto, as have farmers from the Northwest who seek class action status. Monsanto publicly denies wrongdoing. Company officials last week said this is an “isolated incident” and unlikely to spread. One representative speculated it might have been sabotage, though he presented no solid evidence to support that assertion.

In order to calm foreign buyers, the USDA must figure out how this happened quickly. It has 15 people on the case.

This incident will pass eventually, but farmers, scientists, industry representatives, economists and ethicists must revive a conversation about GMO products.

America, officially anyway, is convinced that modified crops are safe. Perhaps they really are just accelerated implementation of what farmers have done for millennia with selective breeding. That matters little so long as other nations fear them.

As a nation, we must decide if allowing companies like Monsanto to test and sell modified seed crops is worth the international economic risk and if it is, what regulations are needed to better protect against a future Oregon wheat incident.

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