The debate over genetically modified crops continues, as it should. But during the course of that debate, all sides need to set aside the rhetoric based on the fantastic precautionary principle that opposes all advances as potentially threatening and focus on the reality of the benefits and negatives of biotech crops.
Genetic modification speeds the process of breeding new hybrids. In plants especially, it has proved to be an extraordinary advance. For example, hybrids of corn require less fertilizer and fewer pesticides, and yields have skyrocketed.
Yes, there have been some negatives that have to be factored into the equation, such as the possibility of cross-pollination with non-GMO crops raised nearby.
Overall, though, it is difficult to argue that GMO corn has been less than a success.
The debate over some species of GMOs resides in the courts. A lawsuit challenging USDA deregulation of biotech sugar beets continues, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered a scientific review of biotech alfalfa.
At issue is the completeness of the USDA's review of those biotech crops before the agency deregulated them. Those reviews are being reviewed, and ultimately the judges will decide what the scientists are no longer allowed to decide.
Most recently, the GMO debate has broken out on still another front. Some farmers in north central Washington state have taken up the anti-GMO banner, this time against biotech wheat. Because much of the wheat grown in the region is exported to Japan and other parts of Asia and would likely find resistance among customers there, the farmers want their colleagues to ban it outright.
That would not be good, either for them or the industry.
All sides of the issue agree on one thing: The marketplace will dictate what kind of wheat is grown. In all of agriculture no sector is more sensitive to that than the wheat industry. U.S. wheat farmers and their representatives canvass the globe seeking out markets. They constantly ask current and potential customers what kind of wheat they want, and they do everything in their power to fulfill those requirements.
To say the wheat industry would willingly toss out decades of work cultivating overseas customers simply doesn't make sense.
Before GMO wheat -- or any other kind of wheat, for that matter -- is grown, the marketplace will be the deciding factor. No one will grow a crop for which there is no market.
At the same time, if GMO wheat were to make its appearance, other growers would be presented with a huge opportunity. In dairy and other agricultural products, non-GMO is a selling point in a segment of the marketplace. Growers would have the opportunity to market their non-GMO wheat in a niche market that would likely bring higher prices.
No matter which side farmers line up on, one undeniable truth emerges. Through all of the rhetoric, the marketplace will ultimately dictate what is grown. As long as farmers follow that truism, they will come out ahead.