By Dr. Jochum Wiersma
U of M Small Grains Specialist
Midwest farmers lose faith they had in biotech crops was a recent heading in the Wall Street Journal. In the article, author Scott Killman, details how farmers in the Midwest are shying away
from Roundup-Ready soybeans and Bt corn in favor of traditional genetics as they purchase next year's seed. Seed sales are lagging far behind the pace of previous years as producers are trying to decide what
The overall tone of the article is that the Europeans, at this point, in time don't want GMOs in their food and likely will require strict labeling laws.
The article goes on to say that the public opinion of the U.S. consumer is undecided, and that the pendulum could quickly swing from silent acceptance to vigilant refusal, as is the case on the other side of the
So if you're a wheat producer, why worry? After all, we don't have Roundup Ready wheat (just yet) and even though the University of Minnesota, with help of the state's Legislative Rapid Response Fund, is
working on Roundup-Ready wheat, as are some in the private sector, the technology is still several years away from release.
Personally, I am neither a big fan nor a big opponent of Roundup-Ready
wheat (a crop scientist is supposed to be objective, you know). But I do think that we need to enter this whole debate with an open mind and a listening ear, wheat producers included, as the industry has an advantage of
being able to watch and learn from today's biotech debate, and take direction before the technology is implemented.
The advances in science and technology over this past century have been
astounding and unprecedented. Even the French fantasist novelist Jules Verne could not have dreamed up half the stuff like cell phones, GPS receivers, and laptop computers we now consider "necessities" of life.
However, along with the great many inventions and applications of technology that truly have made our lives safer and more enjoyable, we have also had our series of slip-ups, mishaps and unforeseen
consequences. (Recall DDT, the post-World War II wonder chemical that would solve all our insect problems, and Glean, the great season-long residual herbicide that would seemingly solve our weed control problems
Misaligned technology isn't necessarily bad, however. Yes, it can result in negative impacts but on the other hand, we can learn from our scientific
mistakes, and these mistakes can result in more sophisticated and stringent evaluation and approval mechanisms before a new technology enters the marketplace, and in the end, better science and better products.
It is fear of unknown and unforeseen consequences and abuses that has made some nervous about the applications of biotechnology. But we are
already learning from this new science. Indeed, scientists, regulatory agencies and commercial entities will have to learn to better communicate
the pros and cons of any technology (after all it can be argued that Bt technology is friendlier to the environment than controlling the European
Corn Borer with conventionally applied insecticides). Therein is the ironic challenge: Trying to communicate in this information age. Helping consumers cut through the confusing terminology and contradicting
headlines of GMOs and creating a better understanding of what it takes to produce their food, so they are better able to develop sound judgments based on facts rather than fiction.