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Oregon wheat farmers ponder GM future

Matthew Weaver

Capital Press

Oregon wheat farmers held a panel discussion during the Tri-State Grain Growers Convention to discuss the future of genetically modified wheat in the industry. Customer acceptance is key to pursuing traits, growers said. Oregon Wheat Growers League President Walter Powell said the industry needs to pursue traits that will be of benefit to the consumer.

SPOKANE — Customer acceptance is the paramount concern as Oregon farmers consider whether to grow genetically modified wheat in the future, participants said during a panel discussion at the Tri-State Grain Growers Convention.

Shannon Schlecht, vice president of policy for U.S. Wheat Associates, said top wheat exporting customers Japan and South Korea are hesitant to use genetically modified wheat in food, but have included low level tolerances in their import standards to take into account the presence of minute amounts of GM wheat.

Genetically modified wheat has been proven to be safe for human consumption, Schlecht noted.

“It’s a marketing issue, not a safety issue,” he said.

A tolerance for GM presence by customers is critical, Schlecht said, as is having equipment in place to segregate the two types of crops.

Jason Middleton, director of grain operations at Pendleton Grain Growers, said the industry’s grain elevators are ill-designed to keep genetically modified wheat segregated from conventional wheat.

“All of these changes will come at a cost to every cooperative, grain company and, in the end, producers,” he said. “Construction of new facilities that efficiently and adequately segregate commodities would easily come with a price tag of $5 to $9 per bushel.”

Bob Zemetra, wheat breeder at Oregon State University, advised farmers to stop thinking of genetically engineered wheat as only herbicide resistant.

“The next generation of genetically modified crop will be targeting insect resistance, disease resistance, drought tolerance,” he said.

The speakers and growers discussed the possibility of pursuing genetically modified wheat traits that would benefit domestic customers in such areas as nutrition or affordability, before looking for traits benefiting farmers.

“The consumer is going to be interested in a GE wheat when the trait provides something to the consumer,” Oregon Wheat Growers League president Walter Powell said. “Every single trait you see us talking about right now is a benefit to a grower in this room. There have to be traits that are of benefit to the consumer that we could be working on and we should be working on.”

Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba said she expects genetically engineered crops to be a topic in the state legislature in the next few years. Oregon will consider whether to regulate GM crops, with potential legislation coming in 2015, Coba said.

Gov. John Kitzhaber will appoint a task force of stakeholders who support and oppose genetically engineered crops, she said. The task force will examine labeling, exclusion zones where genetically modified crops cannot be grown, potential buffers and compensation for growers harmed by genetically modified crops, Coba said.


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