GM debate often values vs. science

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Coexistence remains an elusive dream in Oregon, where plenty of controversy has swirled around genetically modified crops.

Governor John Kitzhaber convened a task force last year to frame the debate over genetic modification and help guide future policy decisions on the issue.

Chris Schreiner, executive director of Oregon Tilth, was one of 13 appointed members of the diverse task force, which produced a report for the governor.

“Reading this report is very much like watching a tennis match,” he told delegates attending the recent Oilseed & Grain Trade Summit.

“Some members think this. Well, other members disagree and think this.”

Schreiner said it was hard to make any headway on the issue because people have entrenched positions on GM crops and there are exaggerated, unsubstantiated claims on both sides of the debate.

Even the language that is used is riddled with confusion. Is it GM, GE or GMO?

“There is just a lot of noise, and we were trying to find where is the signal in that noise,” he said.

“There just needs to be a whole lot more communication on this issue if we’re ever going to untie this Gordian knot.”

Oregon Tilth is a non-profit company that conducts organic certification in 47 states and seven countries. It has 1,462 clients who farm 797,586 acres of land.

The firm is headquartered in a state where a 2014 ballot for mandatory labelling of GM food products was narrowly defeated by 837 votes out of the more than 1.5 million that were cast.

It is also the state where Monsanto’s Roundup Ready wheat was discovered in a farmer’s field in 2013. There was no explanation for how the experimental line of wheat ended up in the field .

So GM crops have been a hot topic in Oregon. Schreiner said his company is not like some in the organic community that refuse to engage in the debate.

“Oregon Tilth really does believe in having and embracing courageous conversations and avoiding isolation in food and agriculture.”

Schreiner said it is a value-driven discussion covering issues such as privacy, choice, individuality and government intervention versus the free market.

“It’s important to acknowledge that a lot of this is not going to be resolved or settled by science or fact,” he said. “These are really more value-based propositions we’re wrestling with.”

Schreiner said no solutions or revelations arose out of the task force’s nine meetings over seven months in 2014.

However, he offered his own thoughts on some of the key elements required for coexistence to work.

The first is shared accountability.

“Right now, all the efforts in terms of preventing contamination are borne by organic and non-GMO farmers. They are having to implement practices that I would de-scribe as trying to fence out the technology.”

He believes technology developers and growers of GM crops need to take steps to fence it in.

Schreiner said an accessible and equitable compensation program is needed for when the fence doesn’t work, perhaps a crop insurance program or some type of industry fund.

Governments need to provide data on things such as contamination rates and lost sales. He discovered while working on the task force that those statistics either don’t exist or are closely guarded.

“It was like looking around in a big dark closet without a flashlight,” said Schreiner.

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