By STEVE BROWN
PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. -- Organic producers tend to look at genetically modified foods as anathema, but Tilth Producers of Washington invited a professor of crop biotechnology to address their annual conference.
Michael Neff, a researcher and educator at Washington State University, described the process of artificially modifying genes and shed light on the preconceptions about the practice.
"I'm not here to preach or to convert anybody," he said. "But there is not evidence that eating GM crops will make you sick."
The public reaction to GM foods is nothing new, he said. The dramatic increase in corn production since World War II was the result of nitrogen-based fertilizers, high applications and hybrid corn. Scientists were told, "You're playing God," he said.
Public health has seen great benefits of the genetic modification process, Neff said. Diabetics and cancer patients are helped by the insulin and chemotherapy drugs produced with genetically modified bacteria.
"You can't make a blanket statement for or against GMO," he said. "It must be a case-by-case basis. You must have scientific knowledge -- education, not just emotion."
Anne Schwartz, a member of the Tilth Producers' executive committee, said until she reviews the evaluation forms from the weekend conference, she cannot characterize what the members' reactions were, but that she saw a good interchange of ideas.
"We have supported the national policy of no GMOs in organic food," she said. "What I heard (Neff) say was that we need to be careful and precise as to we look to where GMOs might be appropriate and not be appropriate."
She said people appreciated the opinion of longtime organic farmer Nash Huber, who said, "Energy spent fighting GMOs is a mistake."
Huber, who farms 400 organic acres in Sequim, Wash., said the challenge of farming nowadays is "getting people on the land."
Looking over the gathering of hundreds of mostly young farmers, he said, "The oxidation of carbon and climate change will change your lives more than you can dream of. Your job will be to essentially survive."
"Genetic modification isn't a safe/unsafe development," Huber said in reference to herbicide-resistant crops. "It just turns off a gene."
The new use of science addresses the needs for economies of scale, he said.