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GMOs: A threat or safety net?

If you eat, then you've likely consumed genetically engineered food.

Genetically modified organisms have become a staple in the U.S. food supply, especially in corn starch, corn syrup and vegetable oils used in everything from cereals and breads to snack foods and salad dressings.

GMOs are deemed safe by federal officials, but they have unleashed a backlash from organic farmers, some scientists and others who have branded them "Frankenstein" foods.

"We are going to create a whole new generation of plants resistant to new chemicals," warned Ray Seidler, a retired Oregon State University professor and former biosafety research scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Concerns about biotech food and a growing local food movement spurred Measure 15-119, an initiative that would ban GMO crops in Jackson County if approved by voters on May 20.

GMOs have been grown in the Rogue Valley for years. Syngenta, a global agribusiness company based in Switzerland, cultivates genetically modified beets on a few dozen plots here. Local farmers raise so-called Roundup-ready alfalfa, which allows them to spray herbicide to kill surrounding weeds without harming their crop.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists 154 biologically engineered plants, including cantaloupes, bentgrass, cotton, canola, rice, flax, tomato, potato, radiccio, papaya, squash and alfalfa.

Genes spliced mostly from other plants give GMO crops greater resistance to insects and herbicides, improve their growth or provide more resistance to viruses.

Humans have for millennia manipulated plants in a painstaking, trial-and-error manner by cross-breeding the same species. Today, companies say they can manipulate genes to get better and faster results by taking a gene from one organism and inserting it into another.

Detractors say GMOs may increase the risk of allergies or cancer and that possible cross-pollination with other crops is a threat to the increasing number of organic farms in Jackson County.

They say Roundup-ready crops allow a farmer to spray more intensively to rid a field of weeds, leaving residue on the crop that could harm insects, humans and animals.

Seidler believes those plants become resistant to herbicides, requiring even more potent formulas and more gene manipulation.

The Ashland resident said he loves technology but believes humans are on a genetic engineering treadmill that will harm the food supply. He likens the excessive use of herbicides to the overuse of antibiotics that has created more and more potent strains of bacteria.

"We are going from one herbicide to the next herbicide that will cost two to three times more than Roundup," he said.

Seidler also worries about management of crops that results in less biodiversity.

"Everything has become like a brother and sister from the same mother plant," he said. "We are talking about inbreeding on a large scale."

Seidler said the old method of cross-breeding plants becomes more difficult because there are fewer strains to choose from.

In only a few cases would Seidler approve of genetic splicing, he said, and then only with a complete understanding of how it affects everything in the environment.

Seidler said the public is starting to push back against corporate food and against plants that have been genetically engineered. He cited the recent announcement by Wal-Mart that it will feature organic foods.

"It's in the pipeline where organic food sources are becoming a larger and larger part of our diet," he said.

Many scientists see value in being able to manipulate genes precisely, and they point out that many of the food products on store shelves already contain GMOs — though there is no requirement to label them as such.

"Almost all of our food is pretty much controlled by big corporations," said Steven Strauss, an agricultural biotechnology scientist and Oregon State University professor who is on Gov. John Kitzhaber's task force on GMOs.

Kitzhaber created the task force earlier this month in response to a controversial bill passed by the Legislature in 2013 that barred counties — other than Jackson, whose initiative had already qualified for the ballot — from regulating GMOs. The 13-member group is tasked with identifying the issues, common ground on both sides and possible new rules for labeling and agriculture in 2015.

Strauss' research has focused on genomics and genetic engineering in eucalypts and poplar trees.

Strauss said most scientists in the field want gene-splicing capabilities in their toolkit.

"I tend to take a more wholistic view," Strauss said.

He said the trouble with bans is that they prevent any type of genetic manipulation, even if it could save a particular species.

On the East Coast, a blight has threatened the American walnut tree, but it's possible to correct the problem through gene splicing, he said. A similar situation exists in Hawaii, where genetic manipulation is being used to save papaya trees from a virus.

Strauss and other scientists and farmers believe there are enough regulations in place to make sure genetically engineered foods are safe. The requirement for federal approval of any genetically modified plant is daunting, he said.

Any plant consumed by the public requires approval from the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But overcoming public concerns about possible health risks or other issues associated with bio-engineered crops can be difficult, he said.

"It's developed this stigma," Strauss said. "It's so heavily regulated that nobody wants to use it."

As a scientist, Strauss said he looks at the genetics of various plants and sees more similarities than differences. He doesn't view it as problematic to take the gene from one organism and insert it into another.

He said natural mechanisms of resistance to insects are often present in the gene of one plant that could benefit another plant.

However, he said that when there is a lot of difference between one type of plant and another species, scientists have to be careful about potential allergens or other problems.

Strauss said he understands the concerns of organic farmers and others looking for locally grown food, but added that arguments surrounding GMOs have in some ways transcended scientific debate.

"It's a mess," he said.

Some counties in California, such as Mendocino, Santa Cruz, Trinity and Marin, already have banned GMOs.

"If you're thinking about economic development, it has been a lifesaver," said Liza Crosse, an administrative aide to Supervisor Steve Kinsey, whose district encompasses many of the cattle and dairy farms in western Marin County. "It's been critical in sustaining our agricultural industry."

At first, some dairy farmers were resistant to the 2004 ban, but once they saw the demand surge for organic food, they changed their minds, Crosse said.

It also has created a market for the grain and crops the animals feed on, she said.

"Our ranchers here are screaming for organic silage," Crosse said.

Marin County has been under tremendous pressure for development with its proximity just north of San Francisco. Crosse said many ranchers were facing difficult economic choices before the county went GMO-free, she said.

Crosse, who has a home in the Applegate and plans to retire here, said organic foods fetch premium prices, and the farmers have close proximity to a gentrified market eager to purchase these products.

Enforcement has not been an issue, although the county did undertake a six-month planning process to help develop strategies for organic farming, Crosse said.

In Jackson County, officials estimated it could cost in excess of $219,000 to enforce the ban proposed by the ballot measure.

Crosse said that as an outgrowth of the planning, Marin County developed processes for organic certification, created strategies for soil and water conservation and addressed social justice issues such as worker pay and working conditions, she said.

"There has been a tremendous push toward organics and against GMOs," Crosse said. "Anti-GMO has almost been a sidebar in this effort."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

GMOs: A threat or safety net?