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Organic farmers don't want fields affected by biotech wheat

(Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Associated Press: BISMARCK, N.D. -- Monsanto Co. should be made to pay if pollen from its biotech wheat seed drifts to neighboring organic fields, a state senator says in a bill that has been denounced as an obstacle to technology.

"I'm not saying you can or can't plant (biotech wheat)," Sen. Bill Bowman, R-Bowman, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Monday. "But if you do, liability concerns have to be addressed."

The committee listened to several witnesses Monday during an initial hearing on the bill that lasted four hours. The full Senate will vote on the legislation later.

Organic wheat farmers worry that biotech wheat pollen will get into their fields, and make their crops unsuitable for their own customers. Bowman's bill would make a seed manufacturer responsible for any damage caused by cross-pollination.

John Olson, a Bismarck attorney and lobbyist for St. Louis-based Monsanto, said Bowman's bill presumes that biotech wheat is harmful. It must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Olson said.

"It bothers me that (Bowman's bill) suggests this is a contaminate in the food chain," Olson said.

Monsanto is developing a wheat variety that is resistant to the company's Roundup herbicide. The genetic changes, the company says, will allow a farmer to spray the herbicide without harming the wheat plants.

Monsanto has already rolled out biotech versions of corn, canola and soybeans that are in use in North Dakota.

Todd Leake, a Grand Forks County farmer, said biotech crops have not gained acceptance in much of the world, and introducing biotech wheat in North Dakota could put the state's export markets in jeopardy.

"It wouldn't be a problem if we had acceptance," Leake said. "Right now it provides a considerable obstacle in the market."

Ken Grafton, director of North Dakota State University's agricultural experiment station, said that under normal conditions, the possibility of wheat cross-pollination was low.

In most studies, and with most wheat varieties, there was no cross-pollination when fields were spaced at least 10 feet apart, he said.

Cal Rolfson, a lobbyist for CropLife America, an organization made up mostly of farm chemical and biotechnology companies, said Bowman's legislation would isolate North Dakota.

"This bill attempts to create a spotlight on North Dakota worldwide as a state which does not wish to promote or even encourage advanced scientific agricultural breakthroughs for North Dakota farmers," Rolfson said.

North Dakota's farmers will be put at a disadvantage if "a single group of organic farmers" is given an advantage "over the vast majority of established agricultural practices," Rolfson said.