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Wheat industry wrestles with GMO issues

(Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Carey Gillam, Reuters: ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (Reuters) - U.S. wheat industry meetings this week will be dominated by fierce debate over genetically modified wheat produced by Monsanto Co., a biotech crop pioneer.

The annual gathering of industry groups, including the National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates, the growers' marketing arm, opened in Albuquerque on Sunday.

Monsanto completed final regulatory submissions last month in the United States and Canada for what would be the world's first transgenic wheat, and now the company is primed to add "Roundup Ready" wheat to its stable of biotech crop offerings.

Some wheat farmers may be warming to the prospect of a new tool to help them grow more robust and profitable wheat, engineered to withstand Monsanto's popular glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide.

But widespread evidence of opposition to GMO wheat from overseas buyers, particularly in Europe, still makes it unclear when -- or if -- GMO wheat will make it to market.

"It is not a given," said NAWG chief executive Darren Coppock. "Our intent and the goal is to introduce it, but right now...customer acceptance is a big obstacle."

Genetically modified wheat dominates the schedule at this year's meeting.

The first general session, scheduled for Wednesday, is dedicated to the debate on genetically modified products. One panel discussion, "Lessons Learned on the Way to Commercializing a Biotech Product," includes leaders of the U.S. corn and soybean growers' groups, whose members have been growing genetically modified crops for several years. That panel is followed by "Assuring Customer Acceptance," led by the chairman of the groups' Joint Biotechnology Committee.

More than corn or soybeans, which are mostly used for livestock feeds, wheat goes straight to consumer products -- and to consumer fears. Anti-GMO groups in recent years have prompted many costly food product recalls based on consumer doubts about including GMO ingredients in foods.


Monsanto has spent the last few years pitching the benefits of its Roundup-resistant wheat, which is designed to allow farmers to control weeds by spraying the herbicide directly over entire fields, killing weeds without harming the crops.

Roundup Ready varieties of corn and soybeans became popular with farmers in the mid-1990s, and the company did not anticipate the outcry surrounding its GMO wheat research.

But U.S. states that grow spring wheat, the first type of wheat for which Monsanto has created a genetically modified version, threatened moratoriums, and farmers fretted that even if they did not grow GMO wheat themselves, customers opposed to biotech would shun them for fear of getting contaminated grain.

To ease grower fears, Monsanto has pledged that it will not introduce GMO wheat until the industry is ready. The company promised to wait for regulatory approval in the United States, Canada and Japan as well as agreements for major export markets and for grain handling protocols.

"We think that there are a series of milestones that if we can achieve, we'll set up a responsible and successful introduction of biotech wheat," Michael Doane, Monsanto's head of wheat industry affairs, told Reuters.

Monsanto's apparent willingness to go slow has helped it win some support among farmers. In North Dakota, which grows nearly half of the United States hard red spring wheat crop, the state farm bureau in November said it was moving away from earlier stringent opposition to GMO wheat, adopting a policy to "support a cautious approach" instead.

Many farmers will be watching this week's meetings.

"There isn't a wheat producer out there who isn't affected by this," said Neal Fisher, North Dakota Wheat Commission administrator. "We know there are a lot of challenges ahead for us. Certainly, the debate goes on."