- - Monday, June 10, 2013

When a farmer discovered biotech wheat on 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 a half-billion acres of wheat planted and harvested in the last dozen years.

The detection made headlines around the world, not merely because the needle was hard to find, but because it wasn’t supposed to exist at all: Genetically modified (GM) wheat was developed, tested and proven safe for human consumption, but it was not commercialized.

The last approved field-test planting of GM wheat in Oregon was in 2001, according to the Department of Agriculture. The most recent field test anywhere in the United States was in 2005. Since then, American farmers have grown more than 500 million acres of wheat. That’s an area larger than the state of Alaska.

Amid this enormous bounty of crops, someone spotted a small handful of plants that shouldn’t have sprouted from Oregon’s soil.

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 detection of this wheat variety does not pose a safety concern,” said the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a statement last week.

The technology 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 was not commercialized in wheat for the simple economic worry that foreign buyers would refuse it, because they have not yet embraced farming’s biotech revolution.

The biggest question over the GM wheat in Oregon is not whether it’s 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.

Let’s not discount the possibility of mischief: The enemies of biotechnology are thrilled by this discovery because they think it gives modern agriculture a black eye.

Meanwhile, there are two lessons from this episode.

The first is that we have an outstanding system of food regulation in the United States. It’s so good that it can spot an isolated event in an Oregon wheat field and help us begin the process of understanding what happened.

The second is that we have nothing to fear from biotech wheat.

This is a safe product. Both farmers and consumers would benefit from its commercialization. It 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 our wheat fields.

This is more than merely a missed opportunity. Our wheat supply already suffers from a lack of biotechnology. Many farmers are switching away from wheat because it’s a less predictable crop than corn and soybeans, which have been improved so much by genetic modification.

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

Convincing Americans about the advantages of biotechnology never has been the main issue. The United States, along with Canada and most of the rest of Western Hemisphere, already has accepted biotechnology as an excellent option for farmers and consumers.

It’s 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 South 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. South Korea’s first test results, announced on Monday, appeared to confirm this.

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

Terry Wanzek is a North Dakota state senator and volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade and Technology (truthabouttrade.org).

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