Things are quiet along the production line at DuPont Pioneers research and hybrid seed corn facility in Hermiston, where large warehouses remain dark and heavy machinery idle until harvest season begins in about a month.
When it does, the 50-acre campus will come alive as crews work to dry, shell and package new varieties of corn seed for further testing across North America. The most successful varieties are then identified for commercialization and sold to growers looking to improve their operations through better genetics.
It all boils down to helping farmers feed the world, said Shane Clayson, research manager at the Hermiston plant. That means placing an emphasis on superior breeding which includes the use of controversial genetically modified organisms.
While no genetic engineering actually takes place in Hermiston, Clayson said they do receive GMO seeds from breeders to create hybrid plants with carefully selected traits, such as resistance to certain herbicides and pesticides.
Companies like DuPont argue their products are not only safe, but take advantage of a technology in high demand to keep up with increasing global food production. But opponents question whether GMO agriculture is truly healthy, ethical and environmentally responsible.
Oregon voters will decide in November whether to approve a ballot measure that would require labeling GMO ingredients in both raw and packaged food. A spokeswoman for DuPont said the company believes labeling should be managed at the national level, as opposed to state-by-state initiatives that add confusion and cost for consumers.
In Hermiston, Clayson said their researchers develop hundreds of hybrid corn varieties for testing every year in an effort to provide growers with the seed that will help them be more successful.
If a variety tests well, it becomes a candidate for commercialization. The Hermiston facility deals specifically with pre-commercialized and parent seeds, with commercial production done on a much larger scale primarily in the Midwest.
However, if a product was made by genetic engineering, one group claims Oregonians simply want to know when they reach the checkout line of the supermarket. Sandeep Kaushik is part of the Oregon Right to Know campaign, which is sponsoring the states mandatory GMO labeling initiative, or Measure 92. He said the group has garnered the support of hundreds of family farmers concerned about cross-contamination with their organic crops.
Furthermore, there is no credible evidence the initiative will raise food costs, Kaushik said. He cites a report by Scott Faber, former vice president and lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, that states food companies regularly change their labels with no impact on the price of making or selling food.
We require labeling of hundreds of different pieces of information on food, Kaushik said. People have the right to know whats in the food they eat and feed to their families. It really empowers consumers to make some informed choices.
Steven Strauss, a distinguished professor of forest biotechnology at Oregon State University, said mandatory labeling of GMOs is not rooted in science but rather on unfairly branding products by slapping on what many consumers will perceive as a warning label.
The reality is it misleads and stigmatizes, Strauss said. DuPont wants to use the cutting edge of science ... the last thing they want is someone stigmatizing it as inferior, when its really superior.
Mandatory labels that stigmatize brands could be avoided by food companies altogether, Strauss said, removing lower-priced foods made with GMO ingredients from the marketplace entirely. Separate storage and monitoring systems would also impose higher costs on the food system overall, to be shouldered by consumers, he said.