Strictly Business: Tolerance for GMO food tested

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Farmers expect the unexpected when it comes to weather, prices, and even politics that affect international markets.

But a discovery that a strain of unapproved genetically modified seed found its way to an Eastern Oregon farm provided a freakish reminder to take nothing for granted.

“We don’t really know what we’re dealing with. We don’t know what’s going on,” conceded Eric Maier, a Washington wheat industry leader whose dry wheat farm in the Ritzville area covers 7,000 acres. “It’s more rumor and conjecture, which is frustrating.”

No one expected that Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” wheat, last tested in Oregon and Washington in 2005, would reveal itself long after the seeds were supposed to be put into safekeeping. Researchers had never ruled out the possibility of renegade seeds, says James Moyer, director of Washington State University’s agriculture research center in Pullman, but “each year, the odds were lower and lower.”

Their reappearance has big implications for Washington’s wheat farmers and the state’s agriculture-related industries. The discovery prompted Japan and South Korea, two major importers of Pacific Northwest soft white wheat, to suspend wheat orders. Lawsuits are landing on court dockets, including one filed Thursday by two Washington farmers who are aiming for a class-action lawsuit against Monsanto.

The St. Louis-based company said its testing of 31,200 seed samples in Oregon and Washington found no evidence of contamination. Researchers and foreign nations aren’t yet satisfied that the single discovery will remain an isolated event.

Unless the immediate crisis is resolved soon, Northwest wheat farmers will start feeling real pain. Some 85 percent of Pacific Northwest soft white wheat — coming from Oregon, Washington, and Idaho — is shipped to the Pacific Rim, Maier says. This year’s wheat harvest begins in a few weeks.

But as the saga unfolds, the larger issue is how much genetic modification of our food supply we’re willing to accept. GMO seeds are in widespread use for some crops — corn, canola, and soybeans among them. But wheat, vital to the world’s food supply, crosses a troubling threshold. Critics worry that genetically modified plants cannot be contained or controlled, and that they could pose future health risks. Many farmers see GMO seeds as opening possibilities for greater yields because of their tolerance to drought and resistance to disease.

Many farmers want research to continue, Maier believes. “We want to see what comes out of this,” he says.

But the battle won’t wait. Dozens of states are considering laws requiring manufacturers to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients. Last week, Connecticut’s Legislature passed a labeling bill, But the measure kicks in only if similar legislation is adopted in at least four other states, including one that borders Connecticut, with an aggregate population of at least 20 million residents.

GMO supporters have shown they’re willing to fight. In California, GMO supporters last year beat back the labeling initiative known as Prop. 37 with a $46 million campaign that outspent supporters by a 5-to-1 margin.

Soon, all eyes will be on our state, where a labeling initiative will be on the November ballot. As a major agricultural state with left-leaning political tendencies, the debate here could be strident and — hopefully — informative to voters.

Monsanto and GMO backers surely hope that the mystery playing out in Oregon is old news by then.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian’s business editor.