Facts, fiction blur in debate
To critics of genetically modified crops, the discovery of an acre or so of unauthorized Roundup Ready wheat in an Oregon field was a worst-case scenario come true.
Representatives of the established environmental groups have come forward with well-reasoned statements that summarize their arguments against genetic modifications. While many in the ag community don't agree with all of their theories and conclusions, their positions represent legitimate interpretations of their understanding of the science.
Predictably, the chorus is joined by a far less knowledgeable chattering class that loudly voices opinions about GMOs and agriculture based on inaccurate information spread across the Internet.
Monsanto, the developer of Roundup Ready seed varieties, is getting an understandable amount of attention from bloggers and readers commenting on news stories. Many are falsely convinced that Congress has granted the company immunity from civil lawsuits claiming damages caused by its genetic modifications.
We aren't sure who started the myth of what is being called the "Monsanto Protection Act." It has its basis in Section 735 of the Continuing Resolution of 2013, passed in March to fund the government through the end of September.
The measure seeks to protect farmers who plant an approved genetically modified crop that is subsequently found by a court to have been deregulated in error. Legislators wanted to make sure growers wouldn't be forced to dig up crops that were legal at planting time.
It clarifies the Secretary of Agriculture's authority to grant the crop temporary and partial deregulation, under whatever conditions necessary to minimize adverse effects, while the USDA remedies the errors found by the court.
In such cases, Monsanto and other GMO developers have no liability. Cases challenging the deregulation of GMO crops are brought against the USDA, which has sole regulatory authority over such matters. The measure, which expires Sept. 30, protects farmers, not Monsanto.
At least three lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto connected with the discovery in Oregon. More are sure to follow, and growers in Washington seek to include all wheat farmers in a class action against the seed giant.
Several legal authorities assure us that Monsanto could face considerable liability if wheat growers can demonstrate harm caused by company negligence.
Critics of genetically modified crops have sincere beliefs concerning the safety of the food the crops yield, and the consequences of introducing engineered genetic traits into the environment.
As in any debate, their arguments are diminished when they stray from fact and trade in fiction.