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Wheat scare should shock us.

Byline: Dan Armstrong For The Register-Guard

The May 29 Register-Guard reported that stands of genetically modified wheat had been discovered in a field in Eastern Oregon.

Although Willamette Valley activists have spoken out against the ethics of genetically modified organisms for years, the issue made the front page because of its economic impact.

Some 90 percent of Northwest wheat is exported to Asia, where three of the largest buyers - South Korea, Taiwan and Japan - much like the European Union, have stated categorically they do no want genetically modified products. Within two days of the Eastern Oregon find, both Japan and South Korean put holds on their orders of Northwest wheat. Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, says $300 million to $500 million of annual Oregon wheat sales are at risk.

The June 7 edition of The Capital Press, an agriculture- oriented weekly published in Salem, contained a GMO Wheat Special Report section that helped fill out the story. Although the grower's name has not yet been released, the newspaper reported that the discovery was in a single 125-acre plot of wheat, where isolated contaminated volunteer wheat represented approximately 1 percent of the field. That means 1.25 acres of wheat is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, marketed as Roundup.

Exactly how this happened was a key part of The Capital Press report. While Oregon State University tests results revealed that the wheat held Monsanto Co.'s patented gene for Roundup resistance, three experts quoted in the report could do little more than scratch their heads when asked about the genetically modified wheat's origin.

Oregon Wheat Commission CEO Blake Rowe's initial reaction was shock: "How could this have happened a... This is impossible; it has to be a false test."

Willamette Valley wheat grower Jerry Margurth found it so strange he ventured that, "This is naturally occurring glyphosate resistance."

OSU wheat breeder Bob Zemetra cited the long period of time since the closure of the last test plot in 2001, saying, "If it was a contamination, why didn't it (the discovery) happen sooner?" The suggestion: if the contamination was residuals from a test plot, it should have been noticed years ago.

Growers commonly use Roundup to clean up their fields, and resistant stands are quite obvious - if they are in a regularly worked plot. The other possible source would have been a seed mix-up at the Monsanto distribution center. Zemetra felt both scenarios were unlikely, yet he offered no other explanation.

To add to the mystery, The Capital Press reported that Monsanto has tested 600 samples of the farmer's wheat. All the samples came up negative for genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Another "30,000 samples from wheat varieties that represent 60 percent of the acreage grown in Oregon and Washington" also were tested by Monsanto and found free of contamination.

Robb Fraley, Monsanto's chief technology officer, seems so certain Monsanto's practices are sound that he wondered if the Oregon wheat could have been the result of intentional sabotage. By whom? An eco- terrorist knowing its impact on the industry? Or the industry itself, knowing that once Northwest wheat is deemed irreparably not GMO free, then why not just go ahead and plant it everywhere?

Monsanto has no explanation for the event and takes no responsibility for the "incident."

Effectively, what the special report gave us was series of experts saying, well, gosh, we just don't know how something like this could happen. None of them was willing to say the obvious: It was poor test plot management.

This kind of accidental contamination of a commodity crop is one good reason not to introduce GMO crops to our food supply. They cannot be contained. (It happened to a vastly greater extent to U.S. rice in 2006-07.) But the list of negatives doesn't stop there.

Foremost is the problem of farmers' loss of ownership of the seed. For 25,000 years, farmers have planted, nurtured, adapted and saved their seed. The patenting of seeds and related seed ownership laws impinge on this primordial human right.

With this loss of ownership, patented seed becomes no different than fertilizer or diesel - another farm component that has to be bought every year. Rather than making food cheaper for all, as advocates have claimed, GMOs actually make food more expensive - not just in dollars and cents but also in terms of external costs to the environment.

The two most noted GMO commercial successes, Roundup-ready field crops (soybeans, corn, cotton and canola) and Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn, offer clear examples of their transient effectiveness and their environmental impact.

The wide use of Roundup as an all-purpose weed killer on some 200 million acres of Roundup-ready crops has, not surprisingly, produced weeds that are resistant to glyphosate. The May 3, 2010, New York Times reported that 10 species of Roundup-resistant weeds have been found in at least 22 states.

A Roundup-ready crop is not a super ag product; it's a superweed vector.

Broadcast tens of million of acres with any new product and nature's fractal engineering team will respond. The corn rootworm (European corn borer), for which Bt corn was created, is now showing resistance to Bt.

Yes, Bt is a naturally occurring insecticide used by organic farmers to combat pests. But what happens when you plant 70 million acres of Bt products annually? Bt runs through the groundwater at concentrations found nowhere else in nature, and you get more than the adapting rootworms; you affect a whole variety of insects and microorganisms. The health of the common caddis fly has become one of the concerns, according to the National Science Foundation.

No matter how adept our biotech engineers become, they never will to able to modify genes as rapidly as nature can adapt, especially when such huge acreages are involved. GMOs are little more than a Ponzi game with Mother Nature.

Guess who comes out on top of this pyramid scheme?

GMOs, for the most part, represent short-term solutions to weeds and pests. But the same results can be achieved without GMOs, often without chemicals at all. Natural practices use slower processes, and perhaps not so all-encompassing as Roundup, but they are safer for all living things in the long term.

The inability to contain GMO products may be an obvious economic liability for Northwest wheat, but what about Northwest organic producers and our world-class specialty seed crop? Why would we jeopardize the purity of two strong sectors in the state's agricultural economy for the benefit of a product that has yet to show any comprehensive long-term advantage?

Possibly the biggest issue is the unknown. What exactly are the unintended consequences of widespread genetically modified organisms?

No one really knows what high-acreage transgenic crops will do in a free biotic space. No one! Could we inadvertently create an invasive species? Or destroy microorganism populations critical to soil health? Or even alter the microbiota in our gut so necessary for digestion?

Even though it is tentatively accepted that GMO food products are not toxic or genetically damaging for humans to eat, negative results are only as valid as the last test. If Bt in our water supply can affect such critters as the caddis fly, then what does it do for humans when these products complete their full cycle through the food chain?

In the end, life on planet Earth is a continuum, not a collection of singularities. There simply is no good reason to introduce GMO products to our food system when they can't be traced or contained.
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Title Annotation:Guest Viewpoint; The recent discovery of genetically modified wheat in Oregon ought to make clear the dangers of GMOs
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 23, 2013
Words:1255
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