Monsanto Co. made news, and some new enemies, recently when it was discovered that the company’s experimental genetically modified wheat – planted in several states between 1998 and 2005 – was found to have escaped containment.
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service confirmed that the strain growing in an Oregon field is indeed a genetically modified strain that is not approved for human consumption.
When the story broke, grain futures plummeted as governments in Europe and Asia halted U.S. wheat imports and began examining earlier shipments for contamination. Now lawsuits are being filed – the first by a Kansas farmer who claims his livelihood is at risk due to what his lawyer calls “zero tolerance for genetically modified food” overseas. That might be overstating the case, especially since government officials assert that the wheat poses no health risk.
Export issues, added inspections, and lawsuits certainly present headaches, but the biggest blow from this mistake is that it reinforces public concerns and provides ammunition to the anti-biotech crowd. Because of that, Monsanto and others in the industry need to take immediate action.
Right now, for example, Monsanto needs to come forward with a fuller and more transparent explanation of what happened and to provide the best assessment possible of how much genetically engineered wheat may be out there. Rather than merely stating that its tests are conducted under USDA and EPA safety protocols, it should explain why it is beneficial to be experimenting with biotech wheat in the first place.
Talking about developing traits for resistance to herbicides and insecticides is meaningful to farmers and botanists, but not to consumers. Instead, Monsanto scientists and spokespeople must discuss the value in seeking ways to create greater crop yields that bring down food prices and to boost nutritional benefits in food ingredients. Otherwise, food companies and the consumers they rely on will continue to be skeptical of the company’s motives.
Another recommendation: Divert some of the tens of millions of dollars now applied to fighting the biotech labeling wars – as was done last fall in California and soon again this November in Washington State – and use them to talk more openly and forcefully about how their products have created the world’s most affordable, abundant, and safe food supply in history and why this work must continue for the benefit of everyone.
As Monsanto is learning yet again the hard way, the road to trouble is too often paved with good intentions. It’s not experimenting with biotech wheat that creates the problem; it’s reinforcing everyone’s worst fears about secrecy and perceived scientific arrogance that puts roadblocks in the way.