By STEVE BROWN
PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. -- Tilth Producers of Washington invited a professor of crop biotechnology to address their annual conference, marking one of the first times a proponent of genetically modified crops has spoken with the group of organic farmers.
Michael Neff, a researcher and educator at Washington State University, described the process of 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 innovations such as genetically modified foods is nothing new, he said. A similar reaction occurred when corn yields skyrocketed as the result of the introduction of nitrogen-based fertilizers, high application rates and hybrid corn.
"Scientists then were told, 'You're playing God,'" he said.
"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."
Many of the images from the anti-GMO campaign have been "inflammatory" and "false advertising," he said. Using Photoshop to create "Frankenfoods," pasting a biohazard label on a product and illustrating an apple with a syringe stuck in it are "scary images" but not accurate, he said.
Beyond those deliberate distortions, though, some issues are matters of opinion, he said.
Public health has seen great benefits from the genetic modification process, Neff said. For instance, diabetics and cancer patients are helped by the insulin and chemotherapy drugs produced with genetically modified bacteria.
Anne Schwartz, on 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 exchange 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 input from 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.
Researcher sees GMO quandary
As a biotechnology professor, Michael Neff has seen several sides of the argument over genetically modified seed. He said these are the key points:
* Genetic modification can be safe and effective if used appropriately.
* Some people just don't like Monsanto and don't want Monsanto to be successful.
* But the anti-GMO approach helps Monsanto succeed. It provides free advertising for the company, prevents other companies from competing with it and it prevents universities from deploying products to help society or to compete with Monsanto.
Also, Neff said, demanding labeling of GMO-containing products implies it is dangerous.
"We need to educate the community, not put on a label," he said. "Getting louder won't help the argument."
-- Steve Brown