Bizarre argument against GE wheat

posted in: News | 8

This is a first. While browsing the news recently, I came across this article in Farm Weekly, an Australian site: GM silver bullet could shoot farmers in foot. In the short article, a representative from Network of Concerned Farmers, Julie Newman, says that conventional wheat farmers need to be protected – from being outperformed by genetically engineered wheat. I have to post the whole thing because I can’t figure out what to leave out:

THE introduction of a Genetically Modified (GM) wheat variety with frost tolerance could potentially flood the world wheat market and drastically lower its price and profitability, according to Network of Concerned Farmers WA spokesperson Julie Newman.

“Our competitors will actually fare much better if we bring in GM wheat, because we can grow frost-tolerant crops now but they can’t because of the cold snaps,” she said.

“If you invent a GM wheat variety that has frost tolerance, it will open up all of the rich farming area in Russia and the Ukraine, and there will be a major glut of wheat on the world market.

“It would almost double global production and that means our wheat would be worth a fraction of the price.”

She said a clear set of rules needed to be established to ensure non-GM farmers were protected and retained their right of choice to not grow it.

“The reason you grow a crop is because you want to sell it, but if you can’t sell it, why grow it?

“There’s not much point growing GM wheat if it can’t be sold, because you will make a loss.

“Now that wouldn’t be so bad if it only affected the growers who choose to grow it, but the losses will also be forced upon the other farmers who don’t want to grow it.

“Bringing in GM wheat will force losses on everyone who grows conventional wheat.”

Let me get this straight: Julie Newman is worried that if a variety of wheat is genetically engineered to resist frost, then previously wheat-free northern areas would be able to grow this staple. And this is bad?

According to Newman, an increase in wheat production worldwide is a bad thing not because it will lower the price of wheat – it is bad because it will lower the price of non-GE wheat. Lowering the price of GE wheat is ok, but if it so much as drops the price per bushel one penny – it’s infringing on our rights!

This doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I have read it no less than ten times, and I still cannot understand her reasoning. If you were to improve wheat to be more frost-tolerant through conventional breeding, that would also pose the same ‘threat’ of increased production and depressed prices. This would make it more difficult for other wheat farmers to economically choose wheat as a good crop to grow. It would not force farmers in non-frosty places to grow the frost-resistant wheat, any more or less than those farmers would be forced to grow a genetically engineered equivalent. There is no change in the ‘right’ not to grow the improved wheat whatsoever.

Faced with lower prices, wheat farmers may choose to grow something else to stay profitable. Note the key word: Choose. If a wheat farmer really wants to grow wheat when it is no longer profitable for them, they can do that, conventional or otherwise. But as the spokesperson for an anti-GE organization, the remedy for this future issue is to prop up local conventional wheat farmers as a special category to keep them afloat. No, not to prop up all local wheat farmers, only the conventional non-GE ones.

Take it out of context of the anti-GE argument, such as with the hypothetical conventionally-bred frost-tolerant wheat I mentioned above, and it is absurd. Or how about another thought-experiment: Let’s say someone finds a fertilizer or growing method that boosts yield – and some farmers don’t feel like using it. Should they be granted price supports to keep them in business while other farmers produce more? Or if a futuristic advanced organic production system produced twice as much yield as conventional farms, would it make any sense to subsidize farmers that just don’t feel like making the switch?

Under the surface of this plan there are several real issues at play. This is coming from an Australian organization, founded by 8 farmers, half of them who grow wheat. (I could find no information on total membership, if there are any more members than these 8.) And Newman is worried that farmers in Ukraine and Russia will start to produce a lot more wheat and drive Australian farmers to something else. (Or to GE wheat) It is difficult to tell what kind of rules Newman is talking about. She may be arguing for a government subsidy to elevate the price of Australia-grown wheat to combat increased production in other countries. This is pretty standard international politics when it comes to agriculture. Or it may instead be a suggestion for some sort of tariff, ban, or other way of blocking the slightly-more-than-hypothetical wheat from Asia from depressing the Australian market.

But this is coming from a group of farmers that is opposed to genetic engineering, so it takes two special twists in addition to the international issue. The first is that the support must be for non-GE wheat only. As the wheat farmers who founded the organization probably do not plan to grow GE wheat themselves, it is a self-serving advocacy in addition to promoting their cause. And in this case they would be using the potential for another nation to flood the market as an excuse to specifically benefit non-GE wheat farmers.

The second twist is of a form that I have begun to recognize in the international discussions over GE wheat – the tool of genetic engineering for crop improvement is being made a tool for international agricultural struggles that don’t necessarily have anything to do with genetic engineering per se. This is problematic because we need laws and regulations concerning GE crops to be based on scientific and ethical guidelines, not price protectionism. If it is necessary to support the price of local wheat in your country, do it and don’t drag this technology into that battle.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.