June 1, 2013

IT’S A SIGN of the extreme sensitivity over genetically modified foods in some parts of the world that the discovery of a patch of pesticide-resistant wheat in Oregon was enough to convince Japan and South Korea this week to halt some imports of the crop from the United States. The move might allay the fears of some East Asian consumers, at the expense of U.S. farmers and to the detriment of the warmer trading relations the two Asian governments seek with the United States. But it will do little to protect anyone across the Pacific from harm.

There is nothing inherently wrong with genetically modified crops. Humans have been genetically altering foodstuffs for millennia. That’s how we got modern wheat in the first place — people promoting mutations in wild grasses over centuries to produce a crop that is easier to harvest. With contemporary techniques, scientists in a lab can quickly make genetic changes that would have taken much longer to accomplish through old-school selective breeding, and they can do it with more precision. Just as cultivating better and better strains of wheat helped feed ancient societies, newer techniques offer humanity one way to help sustain a growing population on a warming globe. The world should embrace that opportunity.

The United States’ large soybean, corn and cotton industries, to name a few, already have. A soybean strain engineered to resist pesticides is widely cultivated. Drought-resistant versions of corn and other crops are coming to market, which might help farmers adapt to the changes in growing conditions climate change promises to bring. Genetic engineering won’t solve every agricultural problem here or elsewhere, but it’s one tool humanity must not discard.

The fruits — or, rather, seeds — of such efforts, of course, should still be subject to safety mandates and review. And, in fact, the strain of wheat that sprouted up in Oregon was. It underwent seven years of test cultivation. The Food and Drug Administration had no questions that this variety was as safe as others.

Under the law and according to prudence, government regulators must also be cautious about how genetically altered organisms might interact with wild species and habitats. Given that, if there is anything concerning in the news about the Oregon wheat, it’s that no one seems to know how it got into the field. That’s not a great sign for those who oversaw its open-air test cultivation. The Agriculture Department must get to the bottom of what happened.

A Japanese official, meanwhile, says that the country’s import halt is temporary. We hope very temporary.