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ND Senate panel upends GM wheat bill

(Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Mikkel Pates, Grand Forks Herald: BISMARCK - The North Dakota Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday gutted a bill on genetically modified wheat sponsored by freshman Sen. April Fairfield, D-Eldridge.

Fairfield's SB2408 would have put the commercialization of genetically modified wheat in the hands of the state Industrial Commission.

Instead, Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, replaced Fairfield's bill with language that simply states that North Dakota State University's role would be as the "resource to state and federal agencies" on the issue.

Fairfield had argued the Industrial Commission - a permanent body including the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner - is the perfect player to approve commercialization of GM wheat.

The commission has voter accountability and already is in charge of overseeing other industries, such as lignite that "are at least as complicated, if not more" than wheat, she said.

Both the amendment and the bill were given do pass recommendations by the committee on a 4-2 party line vote.

Vote today

The full Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill today. It first will vote on the amendment and then on the bill. If the amendment passes, Fairfield said she'll oppose the main bill. If the bill reverts to the original form, she'll support it.

The amended version reads that NDSU "shall conduct research pertaining to transgenic wheat. The research must include varietal development and testing, segregation protocols, domestic and international market development, producer and consumer preferences and methods to minimize outcrossing with transgenic wheat and weeds."

It further says NDSU "shall consult with and serve as a resource to state and federal agencies regarding the commercialization of transgenic wheat (and) after the receipt of all regulatory approvals and may consult with and serve as a resource to public and private agencies in the pursuit of international market maintenance and development."

Flakoll, a former NDSU employee, said the bill is very close to a version passed in Montana.

Wayne Fisher, a Dickinson, N.D., commercial wheat farmer and member of the Dakota Resource Council, said the new version "does nothing for the farmer or for the state of North Dakota."

He said it makes NDSU more responsible for the commercial release even though they "accept money from Monsanto," the company that created the Roundup Ready gene that makes crops immune to the glyphosate herbicide.

Flakoll sees no conflict of interest. NDSU is "charged with the duty of finding out the answers, and I don't see any problems." He said the university has been providing expertise to North Dakota farmers for a century. He said the Industrial Commission is "not used to" deciding whether agricultural crops are released.

Fairfield won her seat in part by criticizing a pro-GMO stance of former state Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, who had chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Fairfield called her bill a "good faith effort" to create a structure and approval process for GM wheat commercialization. She said that anyone who testified against the bill because it would limit research was being "disingenuous or hasn't read the bill."

She said the "hog-house" replacement of the bill with a toothless amendment "speaks to the influence the biotechnology industry has in North Dakota; to block sound public policy decisions."

In a Feb. 13 hearing on the bill, Tony Johannesen, president of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association and an elevator manager from Edgeley, N.D., testified as a neutral party on the original bill, saying the group is "in favor of the concept" of having others besides the seed companies controlling the release of GM wheat.

While saying elevator operators are "not anti-GMO" and don't believe it's a health danger, Johannesen said proponents overstate the ability of the industry to segregate it.

He likened the potential consequences to that of the Karnal bunt disease issue in 1996, when all shipments were cut off.

"One indication of the seriousness with which this is considered in the market is that trading of the July 2004 hard red spring wheat futures contract on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange has been postponed while a committee formulates a recommendation to the exchange board as to whether genetically modified wheat will be acceptable as delivery against futures contracts," Johannesen said.

Todd Leake, a Emerado, N.D, farmer and also a member of the Dakota Resources Council, said if the MGE committee decides against GM wheat "it is a an acknowledgment that they have a nonsaleable commodity. That would be the case."

An earlier, separate bill that would have created a Transgenic Wheat Board, was defeated.