BY SCOTT DAHLMAN | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
Once again activists are trying to raise public fears about genetically engineered (GE) foods.
It’s hard to believe there’s anything more about GE foods to debate. In 2002, 70% of Oregon voters resoundingly rejected the idea of labeling foods containing GE ingredients. In the decade since, more and more farmers are choosing to grow biotech crops.
Last year 88% of the corn grown in the U.S. was genetically engineered, up from 34 percent of corn grown in 2002. More than 90% of all cotton, canola and soybeans grown in the U.S. also are biotech varieties.
Why are farmers planting biotech crops? Since they were first approved by federal agriculture and food safety regulators, experience globally has shown that GE crops have increased yields and broadly reduced negative impacts of farming on the environment.
Genetic engineering has been used to improve crop insect resistance, enhance crop herbicide tolerance and allow the use of more environmentally sustainable farming practices such as “low-till” or “no-till” farming.
But anti-GE zealots continue to claim plants improved using biotechnology somehow pose dangers, despite ever-mounting evidence to the contrary from scientists and food regulators around the world. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the National Research Council of the National Academies of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association have all concluded that biotech derived foods are as safe as their non-GE counterparts.
Last November, California voters defeated another labeling initiative like the defeated Oregon measure. Voters in both states spurned the labeling proposals because they were deceptive, confusing and costly. Editorials in all the major newspapers across California recommended a no vote.
The defeat of two labeling ballot measures 10 years apart hasn’t stopped GE opponents. In Washington State, anti-GE groups presented yet another labeling initiative to legislators earlier this year. And two labeling bills were introduced in the Oregon legislature.
In addition to labeling, some anti-GE groups are now seeking to ban the growing of biotech crops. A local initiative in Jackson County is one example.
Such crop bans arguably violate Oregon’s Right to Farm laws. In Oregon, farmers have the right to choose what crops and farm production technologies work best for them to produce products that meet the needs of markets they choose to serve. Local laws can’t interfere with those rights.
But activists argue that the growing of biotech crops is a risk to organic farmers. Despite such claims, no hard data shows any economic losses resulting from unintended presence of GE material in organic crops.
What farmers want is the right to decide for themselves how they farm and what they grow. The Oregon Board of Agriculture has outlined state policies to support the “wise management of all production systems on farmlands and agriculture applications, striving for economic viability, natural resource stewardship, good neighbor and employee relations, and community connections.”
The “good neighbor” advice in the board’s policy encourages cooperative coexistence among farmers. Coexistence is especially important given the diversity of production practices in agriculture today.
Coexistence is not a new idea. Farmers operate within communities and most already cooperate with neighbors toward their common success.
While talk of coexistence currently centers around GE and organic crops, biotech crops do not create any risks different from those posed by organic or conventional crops. The principles of coexistence and the need to preserve the integrity of crops apply to all agricultural production.
Oregon State University’s Agricultural Extension Service offers unique capabilities to help guide coexistence efforts for farmers in the state. Extension agents can help farmers and others in the food and feed production chain get the education they need about their respective roles in making coexistence work, particularly regarding stewardship, contracting and attention to gene flow.
The Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association in one of the best examples of managed coexistence. A similar structure is under consideration in Southern Oregon – a better approach to organic producers concerns than banning GE crops.
Many Jackson County Farm Bureau members are discussing the best way to encourage coexistence among farmers in the Rogue Valley. Taking a page from Board of Agriculture, some Rogue Valley farmers have formed a loose coalition called the Good Neighbor Farmers.
Most in Oregon’s farming and food production industry share the view of Jackson County’s Good Neighbor Farmers. The right idea is collaboration, cooperation and coexistence.
Costly labeling laws and crop bans don’t make sense, aren’t good for consumers and would hurt Oregon farmers. Being good neighbors is good for everyone.
Scott Dahlman is executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter
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