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Published June 17, 2013, 10:25 AM

Time to embrace biotechnolgy

Making a case for genetically modified crops

By: Terry Wanzek, Agweek

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — 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 half a billion acres of wheat planted and harvested in the past 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 (GMO) wheat was developed, tested and proven safe for human consumption, but it was not commercialized.

The last approved field-test planting of GMO wheat in Oregon was in 2001, according to the Department of Agriculture. 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. 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 readers to know is that GMO wheat doesn’t put anyone at risk. “The detection of this wheat variety does not pose a safety concern,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

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.

So, the biggest question over the GMO 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.

And 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.

Biotech wheat would let wheat farmers 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 just 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 U.S., along with Canada and most of the 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 GMO wheat discovery hit the media, U.S. buyers in Japan and Korea immediately suspended purchases and promised to test samples. Europe said it would increase its testing of wheat, as well. They almost certainly won’t find anything: It looks highly unlikely that any GMO wheat entered the food supply. Korea’s first test results, appeared to confirm this.

But the time to commercialize GMO 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.

Editor’s Note: Wanzek represents District 29 in the North Dakota Senate and volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade and Technology.