June 15, 2013 in Opinion

Guest opinion: Farmers will keep adapting

Eric Maier
 

Just after Louis Davenport of Davenport Hotel fame arrived in Spokane in 1889, the city went through the great fire that destroyed much of downtown. Davenport looked around at how he could make money and saw the wheat fields surrounding the city. He bought a tent, milled some of that wheat into flour and opened Davenport’s Waffle Foundry.

The wheat industry has deep roots in Spokane, deep enough certainly to come back from our latest challenge: the discovery of genetically engineered wheat in an Oregon field. A challenge, however, is not a calamity, at least to this point. Our domestic and overseas customers have reacted to the news calmly, without the hysteria so often a hallmark of genetic engineering discussions. While shipments of our flagship soft white wheat to Japan and Korea are temporarily postponed, they are not banned.

Among all the speculation floating around about the Oregon incident, I want to make clear several facts. First, the genetically engineered (GE) trait found in a single field in Oregon was certified as safe in 2004 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Also, unless you only eat from your own organic garden and live off deer you’ve shot, you eat food made from GE plants every single day and have since 1996, when the first Roundup Ready gene was put into corn. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and there is no reason why we should. Millions of acres have been planted to genetically engineered varieties of corn and soybeans – even papayas – in the last 17 years and are consumed throughout the world.

It’s a win for everybody, including the environment, if I can grow a wheat crop on my farm using less fertilizers, less pesticides, less fuel and less water. GE wheat may help me do that. And if a GE wheat has a consumer benefit along with the farm benefit, then so much the better.

Technology has saved the farming industry again and again. Today, we are not the least-cost producer in the world, but we are the smartest about producing our crops efficiently. Wheat farmers have studied the subject of genetic engineering thoroughly. My verdict? I believe in biotechnology and await its arrival.

At the same time, we want our industry to move forward within the rules that make the American regulatory system the best in the world. These rules can be burdensome on our farms at times, but we know they are necessary. We have confidence in the protocol set for GE approval through our federal agencies, and we want to ensure approval by our customers. When that review is satisfied, I’m confident public universities and private companies will provide a safe and reliable seed that will enable us to continue to feed the world and another 2 billion people by the year 2050.

The Washington wheat industry is an important economic driver that enhances the state’s reputation as an export hub. Last year, Eastern Washington farmers grew 146 million bushels of wheat valued at $1.1 billion and sent it around the world. Total economic activity in the state from that wheat was worth $2.85 billion and more than 26,000 jobs.

Once upon a time, European scientists knew that heating milk would kill harmful bacteria. Yet, from the time this knowledge was discovered to the time it was mandated in New York City in the early 1900s, more than 40 years elapsed and millions died. People, even dairy farmers, feared the new technology. Today pasteurization is commonplace in keeping our milk safe.

Here’s hoping we’ve learned a little something since then.

Eric Maier is a past president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. He is a fourth-generation farmer who has worked his family’s land near Ritzville for more than 30 years.

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