After news broke that a genetically engineered strain of wheat had been found in Oregon, a reporter asked me if this was the wheat industry’s equivalent of mad-cow disease.
Um, no. Mad-cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a fatal neurodegenerative disease in cattle that killed 144 people in Britain and another 44 elsewhere, closed a few foreign markets to American beef producers for years and completely changed how cattle-feeding and beef-slaughtering was conducted.
The genetically engineered trait found in a single field in a single county in Oregon, on the other hand, was certified as safe in 2004 by the Food and Drug Administration.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that any of the genetically engineered grain entered commercial channels.
Finally, if the billions of dollars now being poured into genetic research is any indication, it will likely be the dominant means of feeding the additional 2 billion people on the planet between now and 2050.
None of this, however, diminishes the short-term impact of the Oregon find.
Japan, regularly our No. 1 customer for soft white wheat, has delayed shipments of that class as it waits on the U.S. Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to get to the bottom of an unfortunate situation.
Consider the facts: An Eastern Oregon farmer preparing his field for planting sprayed glyphosate, a herbicide known familiarly as Roundup, to kill weeds and unwanted volunteer wheat plants that germinate from seeds dropping on the ground during harvest.
He noticed some “volunteers” didn’t die and contacted Oregon State University. Preliminary analysis indicated a genetically engineered component. The APHIS was contacted and after extensive testing concluded the volunteers had a trait that allows them to survive an application of Roundup.
This “Roundup Ready” technology was the original genetically engineered trait moved into corn in 1996 and versions of it are also in soybeans and canola.
It allows farmers to spray for weeds without killing the crop and has been adopted on millions of acres in this country and around the world. It has also, according to research, diminished the rate of chemical applications used in agriculture.
While the Washington wheat industry is no Boeing or Microsoft, it is an important economic driver and burnishes the state’s reputation as an export hub.
Last year, Eastern Washington farmers grew 146 million bushels of wheat and exported around 90 percent of it to countries around the world.
According to the Washington state Department of Agriculture, the crop that year was valued at $1.1 billion. Total economic activity generated within the state was worth $2.9 billion and 26,000 jobs.
Farmers’ contribution to the economy, however, is only part of their legacy. The 2.2 million acres of wheat they annually plant in Washington yields a landscape that changes with the season.
For those willing to slow their hectic pace and travel rural roads beyond the freeway, there is a splendid panorama of browns, greens and gold that has entranced artists and photographers for generations.
It is said the first wheat crop grown in Washington was planted at Fort Vancouver in 1825. From then until now, Washington’s wheat industry has provided a stable underpinning for the state to grow.
While we are an old industry, we are an industry that knows how to come back from our challenges stronger than before.
The finding of genetically engineered wheat in an Oregon field is a challenge, but it is hardly a calamity.
I am personally grateful our domestic and overseas customers have, at least to this point, reacted to the news calmly and without any of the hysteria that is too often a hallmark of the genetic-engineering debate.
As the APHIS investigation continues and more answers are forthcoming, I believe the isolated finding of a biotech trait in a single Oregon field will be seen as little more than a glitch in the history of a science that is our best opportunity to feed the planet.
Glen Squires is CEO of the Washington Grain Commission.