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Biotech wheat issue starts to heat up

(Monday, April 21, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Topeka Capitol-Journal (Kansas), 04/17/03: Earlier this year, a representative of Monsanto told me during a radio interview that the company had no intention of releasing its Roundup Ready wheat variety anytime soon --- or at least until consumers, growers and wheat buyers had no serious objections to the commercial release of biotech wheat. Monsanto delivered that same message to those attending the Wheat Industry Conference in January in Albuquerque.

One would think those comments might put to rest criticism that Monsanto is being insensitive to industry concerns about the issue or grower suspicions that the firm would adhere to a specific timetable in releasing Roundup Ready wheat, regardless of public and industry opinion.

In fact, quite the contrary appears to be happening. If anything, some growers and groups are even more vocal in questioning Monsanto's intentions than they were one or two years ago --- perhaps a sign that the company waited too long to clarify its position on the biotech wheat issue.

I suspect Monsanto may have fueled some of the criticism itself when the firm petitioned the USDA's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service back in December for approval of its Roundup Ready wheat variety. There is speculation that approval could be granted in time for commercialism of the variety ahead of the 2004 planting season. That doesn't necessarily mean Monsanto is planning to release the variety at that time.

Much of the criticism is coming from the Northern Plains, a major producer of hard red spring wheat. The first genetically engineered wheat variety slated for commercial release is spring wheat.

In Montana, the state Legislature approved a non-binding resolution urging a delay in the introduction of genetically modified wheat until it has better acceptance. The action came as University of Iowa economist reported that Montana hard red spring wheat could lose one-third of its value if biotech seed were introduced in the next two to six years. Robert Wisner estimates the United States could lose up to half its foreign wheat markets if it adopts the genetic technology. Wisner says the major stumbling block is consumer acceptance of biotech wheat, not food safety.

A recent poll of North Dakota grain elevator operators indicated a substantial level of concern over the potential commercialization of biotech wheat. The survey, conducted by the Minneapolis-based watchdog group known as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, targeted North Dakota because the state is the top producer of hard red spring wheat.

The group sent the survey to 317 North Dakota grain elevators; 52 of them responded (roughly one out of every six who received the survey). Of the respondents, 98 percent said they were either very concerned (82 percent) or somewhat concerned (16 percent) about the proposed introduction of genetically engineered Roundup Ready wheat. In addition, 78 percent said they supported an expanded public review of biotech wheat compared with the U.S. government process previously used to approve genetically modified crops.

The elevators ranked loss of export markets as their greatest concern related to the commercialization of biotech wheat. Second on the list of worries was the feasibility of creating a workable segregation system.

Farther north, the chairman of the Canadian Wheat Board has called on the federal government there to close the regulatory gap on genetically modified wheat by adding a cost-benefit analysis to the Canadian government's approval process. Appearing before a House of Commons committee earlier this month, Ken Ritter was quoted as saying, "The urgency of this issue cannot be overstated."

Ritter believes the introduction of Roundup ready wheat would have a devastating impact on western Canadian farmers --- claiming that more than 80 percent of the markets that the Canadian Wheat Board sells into aren't open to GM wheat.

Ritter is suggesting that any cost-benefit analysis on genetically modified wheat should look not only at the impact of lost markets but also at the added costs of segregating GM wheat in the market system, and the costs of controlling volunteer GM wheat.

While the discussion of possible changes in the regulatory approval process for genetically modified wheat would certainly include greater public input, it also could have a huge impact on the approval process for all biotech varieties in the future. Is that what U.S. agriculture really wants?

How many of the biotech varieties currently being grown in the United States would have received approval if such a public review process had been in effect five or 10 years ago? How many agricultural research firms would be willing to invest the vast amounts of money needed to develop biotech varieties if the approval of those varieties hinged on the whims of public opinion in addition to meeting the requirements of a sound scientific review?

For the moment, I don't fault Monsanto for seeking regulatory approval of Roundup Ready wheat. From a strictly business perspective, it probably makes sense for them to do so.

However, the firm also has given its word that it will exercise restraint in releasing the biotech wheat variety until there is broad public acceptance. For Monsanto to do anything less now would be a public relations nightmare for the company --- and clearly would violate the pledge it has made to wheat growers.

Kelly Lenz is farm director for AM 580 WIBW Radio and the Kansas Agriculture Network.