Trials require careful eye
We have always supported the development of genetically modified crops, and their cultivation when they serve the purposes of both their growers and the market.
We think these crops have the demonstrated potential to increase yields, reduce input expenses and increase profitability while addressing problems associated with pests, drought and other growing conditions.
Nothing about the discovery last month of unregulated Roundup Ready wheat in an Eastern Oregon field changes that.
But we agree with biotech critics that the USDA's oversight of biotech test plots and the resulting crops is lax.
That opinion was only bolstered when the Agriculture Plant Health and Inspection Service, the agency charged with regulating biotech crops, refused to talk about its regulations regarding test plots in even the most general terms.
From what other sources tell us, rather than a prescriptive set of regulations, APHIS gives the company conducting the field test leeway to meet certain performance standards to keep viable genetically modified seeds from spreading into neighboring fields or into the seed or food supply chains. That makes some sense. Each test and its circumstances are different, making a one-size-fits-all regulation impractical.
APHIS reviews the plan, and either suggests alterations or approves the plan as submitted. Then it's up to the developer to ensure the plan is followed and no modified genetic material escapes. APHIS isn't there to watch. It might follow up later with an audit, which examines the paper trail to determine if everything went according to plan.
That works OK as long as all the parties follow the plan, and nothing goes wrong. But when the plan isn't followed, either by accident or design, or something does go wrong, no one knows until the damage is done.
Had the unidentified farmer in Eastern Oregon not stepped forward to report his discovery -- a laudable act of courage -- we doubt an audit of the paperwork would have discovered the contamination.
At this writing, APHIS has not determined how Roundup Ready wheat came to rest in the farmer's field. Until we know otherwise, we're willing to assume everyone acted honorably and something just went wrong.
However it occurred, it's a mistake that could cost U.S. wheat growers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales.
We're not fans of unnecessary or heavy-handed regulation. However, the wider farming community has an economic stake in preventing unintended outcomes.
We think this is one of those times when a hands-on approach is what's required.
We don't know that an extra set of eyes without financial ties to the developer would have spotted where things went awry. We know in this case they weren't there to see.