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Monsanto uses secret Montana location to demonstrate its genetically modified wheat

(Monday, July 21, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Jim Gransberry, Billings Gazette, 07/20/03: BOZEMAN - Monsanto Co., the creator of genetically modified (GM) food plants resistant to its own widely used herbicide, understands that its biotechnology efforts are not without controversy.

But the company has pegged its future on a move away from chemicals and toward the use of biotechnology in a number of areas. They include applications in agriculture, food nutrition, pharmaceuticals, industrial processes, bio-remediation and bio-fuels.

The move comes with the acknowledgment that it must do a better job in explaining to a skeptical public, and outright opponents, that its efforts are safe and will result in positive benefits for farmers and consumers as well as the company.

Roundup Ready spring wheat

This effort at transparency, stewardship and providing data to regulatory agencies was offered up Thursday for a few journalists who accepted an invitation to a seminar and field trip focused on Roundup Ready spring wheat.

There was one caveat.

"We are taking some risk at revealing the test-plot location," said Michael Doane, director of industry affairs for the St. Louis-based corporation, who asked that the exact location not be revealed.

"It is for the cooperative researcher's safety, the facilities and the crop," he said.

The test plot is in Gallatin County. That is the extent of the information available to the general public through the Freedom of Information Act, said Danny Gigax, Monsanto's representative for wheat research partner relationships. "I deal with Roundup Ready wheat only," he said.

Monsanto, through genetic engineering, has developed Roundup Ready soybeans, corn and canola. It is now testing Roundup Ready spring wheat. Roundup is Monsanto's broadleaf herbicide. Roundup Ready plants are resistant to Roundup which allows farmers to spray it on those crops without killing the grain plants at the same time.

Foreign importers, however, have indicated they will not buy GM wheat. In Europe and Japan, consumers have rejected GM foods because of the perception that they are not as safe as conventionally produced hybrid varieties. Because Montana sells most of its wheat to the Asian Pacific Rim, some farmers are opposed to any introduction of Roundup Ready wheat lest it "contaminate" the state's commercial varieties and kill the state's valuable export market. In any given year, Montana's wheat crop is valued at $400 million to $900 million, with 60-70 percent of the crop going to the Pacific Rim.

Legislative attempts

In the past two legislative sessions, bills were introduced to restrict or prevent the introduction of GM wheat in Montana. Similar legislation has been introduced in North Dakota. All those attempts were rejected by legislators.

The Canadian Wheat Board, which controls all exports of Canadian grain, also opposes the introduction. A recently released study commissioned by the CWB concluded that "under current conditions the release of Roundup Ready wheat in Western Canada would be environmentally unsafe."

Monsanto Canada rejected the conclusion as "It does not seem to accurately reflect international mainstream, scientific opinion and peer-reviewed data on the benefits of biotech crops," Canadian Press reported.

This year, the Montana Legislature accepted a joint resolution affirming opposition to the introduction of GM wheat until Monsanto has fulfilled its own six-point pledge, which it has made to all its potential users.

Along with the pledge, Doane said the company is committed to dialogue, transparency, respect, sharing of some discoveries and benefits from its research.

"We issue an annual report on the pledge," he said. "The second is due in a few months."

Doane said U.S. grower satisfaction with Roundup Ready soybeans, corn and canola is high, but on a global scale acceptance is lagging.

Use of the seed reduces crop input costs, he said, and increases a return to the farmer. Use of the seed has also reduced the application of 46 million pounds of pesticide a year. Yields have increased by 4 billion units (measured in either bushels or pounds, depending on the seed).

Doane said the company recognizes and accepts the regulatory process worldwide, which can differ in each country.

Monsanto has pledged that Roundup Ready wheat will not be introduced commercially until its food, feed, and environmental safety is demonstrated, resulting in regulatory approvals in the United States, Canada and Japan. "Japan has indicated its desire to impose science-based regulation," he said.

Our goal is to have a Roundup Ready variety that is adaptable to each region of Montana where spring wheat is grown either on dryland or irrigated cropland.

In all cases, the introduction will be based on "grower, manufacturer and consumer benefit," Doane said.

"We have to prove the safety of the gene, the food, the animal feed and the environment. That it is as safe as unmodified varieties and (nutritionally) is substantially equivalent to commercial varieties.

"When to commercially grow Roundup Ready wheat is not the issue, but how it is done." He said.

Doane said Monsanto has become a convenient proxy for issues in a larger context such globalization and corporate control as an ideological concern Another big concern is "contamination" or co-mingling with commercial wheat varieties.

Preventing that is Gigax's full time job.

The protocols for planting test plots of Roundup Ready wheat are specific, he said. Applications to plant must be made to the U.S. Department of Agriculture 180-days in advance.

"There are less than 50 acres of Roundup Ready wheat plots in the United States and between 30 and 40 acres in Canada," he said.

No volunteer wheat is allowed to survive as the plots are surveyed for two years after harvest. One hundred-foot borders are maintained between the plots and from any wheat that goes into commerce.

"Outcropping or pollen drift is less than .01 percent because the pollen is relatively heavy," Gigax said.

All the grain is destroyed after harvest and the yield is determined, he said. All the seed comes double bagged before planting and the bags are burned. In addition, there is third-party auditing of the fields. "None of the grain is allowed to go into commerce," Gigax said.

Doug Ryerson, Monsanto's field man out of Great Falls who conducted a tour of the Gallatin County plot, said there are about dozen test plots in the spring wheat growing areas of Montana. The cooperating growers are anonymous, he said.

"We are trying to be responsible and not mess up the market," Ryerson said. Ed Davis, the cropland weed researcher at Montana State University, said his plot allowance is 2.5 acres, but only 1.2 are planted this year. This is his third year of testing.

Most of the Roundup Ready wheat grows to flowering stage and is then plowed under, he said. "I am the accountable person for the integrity of the plot, so I do not tour or publicize the site," he said.

His studies focus on the noxious weeds kochia and wild oats, two of the most serious weeds in Montana wheat. His test plots demonstrate the effectiveness of Roundup Ready plants compared to conventional wheat.

The varieties being used by Davis come from Western Plant Breeders, a private Bozeman company that specializes in breeding wheat and barley varieties.

Dale Clark and his partner Dan Biggerstaff have been introducing the Roundup Ready gene into present conventional varieties. "Our goal is to have a Roundup Ready variety that is adaptable to each region of Montana where spring wheat is grown either on dryland or irrigated cropland," Clark said.