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Are GE crops as scary as some local skeptics believe?

I've spent months reading and talking to colleagues about genetically engineered (GE) crops looking for possible dangers there may be to other crops by gene hopping or cross-pollination from GE crops. I spent 35 years in production research of tree fruits and wine grapes at the University of California Riverside and at Oregon State University. I also spent five years designing and inspecting vineyards for the sustainable program in Oregon (LIVE) to meet European requirements.

We should be excited about the future of GE crops and what the future will bring for the agricultural industry, particularly tree fruits and wine grapes. I am concerned that Measure 15-119 would deny GE crops that would be important in the county. I am worried that some of the measure supporters are part of an anti-science movement, while others are upset at big corporations — Monsanto and Syngenta — for controlling the use of their GE crops in a heavy-handed manner.

Measure 15-119 would ban all future GE crops in the county including perennial GE crops. This measure would prohibit GE perennial crops such as pears and wine grapes even though cross-pollination would not be an issue as their pollen would not be compatible with annual seed crops. Perennial crops are propagated by woody tissue and not by seed. Therefore, GE perennial crops would not require isolation from nonGE crops.

A study of GE crops by the National Research Council of Science in 2010 found that GE cropping has largely resulted in improved farm environment due to less pesticide. No-till, Roundup Ready crops improved runoff water quality and saved 98 percent of the topsoil from erosion. Some weeds have evolved resistance to Roundup in Roundup Ready crops.

The active ingredient of the herbicide in Roundup is glyphosate, which is an extremely effective herbicide considered to have low toxicity to animals and is widely used in conventional farming. Glyphosate also has low soil and water contamination potential because it binds readily to soil particles and has a relatively short half-life in soil. Another common type of GE crop uses genes from a soil-dwelling bacterium, known as Bt, to produce a crop that is toxic to some insect pests but nontoxic to vertebrates and many other invertebrates.

Field development of the GE technology is costly and requires large companies. However, the Research Council noted that, when these companies legally enforce their intellectual property rights with regard to GE seeds, there has been a lack of understanding concerning the social impact on affected farmers.

Of course, continuing testing of GE crops must be done in order to keep an eye on the health and environmental impact. Many scientist believe future GE crops can be introduced safely if testing is improved, similar to the testing of new drugs by the FDA. But stricter testing must be done effectively so that new GE crops aren't unduly held up and made more costly than necessary.

The Intergovernmental Council on Climate Change report released March 31 states climate change will make it increasingly difficult to feed the world. Biotech crops will have an essential role to ensure that enough food can be grown.

Some bioengineered crops that may be introduced soon include potatoes with blight resistance and improved storage life; rice with tolerance to drought, submergence, heat and salt; and wheat with drought tolerance along with herbicide and disease resistance. For local use, there is a GE variety of tomato that has purple fruit with increased health benefits and another variety that will set more fruit during cool spring and summer temperatures, plus transgenic strawberry, blueberry, potato and barley plants, and popular trees with improved freezing tolerance developed by OSU. Washington State University is developing GE pear varieties that have ready-to-eat fruit when still firm at harvest and also is developing GE pear varieties that have fireblight resistance, which would eliminate bactericide sprays. A GE wine grape has been developed by the Australian wine industry that is resistant to powdery mildew, which would reduce fungicide use in vineyards dramatically.

We must be open-minded to the reality that GE technology coupled with effective safeguards can provide improved crops that will meet the increasing challenges of an uncertain future during climate change. Support GE crops: Vote no on Measure 15-119.

Porter Lombard is a professor emeritus of horticulture at Oregon State University.