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Monsanto courts farmers on biotech wheat

(Thursday, Feb. 27, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Carey Gillam, Reuters: KANSAS CITY, Mo., - When leaders of the U.S. wheat industry gathered for a recent conference in New Mexico, they toasted their partnership with Monsanto Co., developer of the world's first genetically engineered wheat.

The scene reflects a major shift in the U.S. farming industry's position on a divisive issue. There has been widespread fear among American farmers that Monsanto's push for genetically modified wheat would hurt sales, especially overseas where opposition to genetically engineered crops is strongest.

Winning over farmers has not been easy. Millers and food companies have said they will not buy biotech wheat for fear consumers will reject it, and the industry's export experts have warned foreign buyers could boycott U.S.-grown wheat.

Monsanto officials appear to have succeeded in allaying the fears of farmers by crisscrossing America's mid-section and promising not to roll out the new wheat until the industry is ready.

Farmers want Monsanto to meet several objectives, including ensuring market acceptance.

Along the way, Monsanto has opened its checkbook, providing training, trips and parties for wheat industry leaders, and giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to universities where researchers talk up the advantages of biotech crops.

Dusty Tallman, former president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, said, "The (farmer) sentiment has turned fairly significantly. They (Monsanto) do invest in our industry. They've done a very good job of educating producers to the value of what they're going to have to offer us."

The campaign has been so successful that critics have been effectively silenced, ordered by industry leaders to talk up -- not down -- the impact of gene-altered wheat.

Consumer groups both in the United States and other countries have voiced concern about the unknown long-term health effects of the wheat and its impact on the environment.

Monsanto spokesman Michael Doane said, "We have both an obligation and a need to spend time doing that kind of outreach and education and putting ourselves in a position to learn."

Arthur Schafer, University of Manitoba's director of ethics studies, who has been outraged by reports that Monsanto paid travel and other expenses for some Canadian growers, said, "They're buying goodwill. If you're a farm leader, it's a violation of your duty to your members to accept benefits from a company that has a stake or an agenda that you have to take a position on."