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Farmer wants ND to ensure protection of foundation wheat seed stocks

By Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(June 13, 2002 – CropChoice news) – Todd Leake fears that genetically engineered wheat could contaminate North Dakota’s pure seed stocks, even before it’s available commercially for planting.

"Any contamination spreads through the crop and later seed generations," says Leake, an independent family farmer in eastern North Dakota, a state whose economy relies on agriculture, particularly on wheat.

Were any of the characteristics of the wheat that Monsanto genetically engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) to appear in the conventional varieties that the state’s farmers grow, major export customers could follow through on their repeated threats to reject it.

North Dakota State University is under contract with Monsanto to conduct nursery trials on the Roundup Ready wheat. The trials consist of taking the transgenic crosses made in the laboratory and grown out in the greenhouse and then field testing hundreds of first, second and third generations to identify the material they are seeking. The problem as Leake and other farmers see it is that some of the same research centers doing the transgenic research also grow wheat for foundation seed. This seed comes comes directly from breeder stock and is considered pure. (Land grant universities, such as NDSU, typically produce foundation seed to make available to farmers.)

But these public research centers aren’t the only possible venues for field trials of Monsanto’s biotech wheat. The company has received more permits each year since 2000 for field trials of its wheat. Since the number of those permitted acres is greater than what the research centers are testing, Monsanto could contract privately with farmers and seed companies to carry out field trials.

State officials say that they prefer to do the tests because the public research centers are better equipped than individual farmers to prevent the genes for Roundup resistance from escaping. Yet they have given Leake few answers to his questions about their measures to guarantee the purity of the foundation seed stocks. At the very least, he says, they should perform DNA tests on them.

The process of genetic engineering is one in which scientists take genes from one species and insert them into the genetic structure of another. Genetically modified organisms could contaminate foundation seed stocks through cross-pollination or co-mingling of seeds and grain during planting, processing, storage or transportation.

In response to what they see as the economic, agronomic and environmental dangers of transgenic wheat – and of biotech agriculture in general – farmers, environmentalists and consumers in the region are working to stop its commercialization.

Economic stakes

Wheat is big business in the U.S. northern plains and in western Canada. More than 50 percent of U.S. wheat and nearly 70 percent of Canadian wheat is exported, according to the Canadian Wheat Board.

Japan and the European Union are the top two buyers of the hard red spring wheat that farmers in the Dakota states, Minnesota, and Montana grow widely, says Dawn Forsythe, director of public affairs for U.S. Wheat Associates, which develops export markets for the grain. Japan purchased 1.3 million metric tons last year, and the EU almost a million tons. Taiwan, the Philippines and Korea together bought 1.7 million tons.

These and other markets have stressed that they do not want and will not accept genetically modified wheat.

The usual response from Monsanto, which wants to market Roundup Ready wheat sometime between 2003 and 2005, is that it will not proceed until after it has gained full regulatory approval in all major export markets. (The exception is the European Union on account of its continuing moratorium on new genetically modified crop varieties.)

In Japan, the company has been field testing its wheat as one of the initial steps in achieving regulatory approval. In response to this news, the Japanese Bakers Association in March asked the company to discontinue with the application process, Forsythe says.

"Every aspect of the Japanese wheat industry, be it millers, bakers or buyers, has said that regardless of whether it gets regulatory approval, we still will not buy genetically modified wheat," she says. "The Koreans have said the same. Two years ago, when we went to talk to the Philippine flour industry about GM wheat, they didn’t know what it was. This year we had our board team go into a meeting with them and the first words out of their mouths were ‘don’t send us [genetically modified] wheat. In the Middle East, the more they hear, the more averse they become."

The fears of market rejection are similar north of the border.

"There is virtual consensus in western Canada that this is not where we want to go," Canadian wheat farmer Bill Toews told CropChoice in July. Numerous western Canadian farm organizations, representing tens of thousands of growers, are publicly opposing the commercialization of Roundup Ready wheat. These include the National Farmers Union, Western Wheat Growers, the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, the Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association and the Keystone Agriculture Producers. (Farmers fight introduction of Ready wheat in Canada; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=387)

Apparently some of the people at the North Dakota State University Research Extension Centers take seriously these concerns. As this publication reported last month, the directors at two of the centers declined participation in this year’s trials of Monsanto’s wheat rather than risk contamination of the foundation wheat they grow to bear seed. (See related CropChoice story – "ND research extension centers say ‘No’ to transgenic wheat trials;" http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=698 )

"Wheat growers have noted the zero tolerance for GMO contamination [of wheat] in the international marketplace, so we decided not to host the nursery trials in 2002," says Jay Fisher, director of the North Central Research Extension Center. He will gauge grower and market acceptance in deciding whether to participate in the trials in 2003. The Carrington Research Extension Center took the same stand.

Each research center was given the option of whether to participate in the trials.

The Carrington Research Extension Center is not participating in the nursery trials, but will finish off the last of a three-year test of the weed control aspects of the wheat; this means the wheat won’t be allowed to flower. As in years past, the Center’s equipment and lab will not be used for any of the research.

The Research Extension Centers at Dickinson, Streeter, Hettinger, and Williston do not plan to host any transgenic wheat trials this year. Williston center (WREC) may be designated as free of any genetically engineered wheat to ensure the integrity of research on other varieties.

But other research centers are participating.

Randy Mehlhoff directs the 700-acre Langdon Research and Extension Center. Although it specializes in growing barley and durum wheat, this is the second consecutive year that the center will conduct trials on Monsanto’s wheat on less than an acre of ground, Mehlhoff says. Last year’s tests focused on the weed control qualities of the herbicide-resistant wheat. This year, however, the staff will test the variety. This includes evaluating various agronomic factors through the full life cycle of the wheat and then collecting the seeds (which of course will be turned over to Monsanto).

This also is the second year that the center will grow a type of hard red spring wheat (Alsen) for production of foundation seed.

To address the possibility of genes from the Roundup Ready wheat mixing with the Alsen variety, the center will put a 1,320-foot buffer (about one quarter of a mile) between the two wheat types, says Mehlhoff, noting that such a buffer far exceeds both federal and state requirements.

(Nationally, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, regulates the field testing of biotech crops. It requires a 33-foot buffer around transgenic wheat. To perform such trials in North Dakota, the state Department of Agriculture is stricter, requiring a separation of 330 feet.)

In addition to the precaution of a large buffer zone, the NDSU Plant Sciences Department will provide planting and harvesting equipment for use solely on the Roundup Ready wheat; the machines will be cleaned with an air compressor before leaving the test plot. After harvest, Monsanto will come to take away the seed. "Any residue or chaff will be buried deep enough not to have to worry about it," Mehlhoff says.

And after harvest in August, the center will test the DNA of the foundation seed to try to detect the presence of Monsanto's genetics.

"NDSU does have an obligation to do the research," he emphasizes.

But getting details about this has been difficult. This reporter thought about pursuing such information through North Dakota’s open records law. However, 4 to 5 years ago, the state legislature passed a law exempting the university from any open records requirement that it divulge its private funding sources, says John Crabtree of the Dakota Resource Council.

In general, when Monsanto or any other company enters into a contract with NDSU, 41 percent of the money comes off the top to support administration of the university itself, according to school officials.

"So, the more grant money they take in, the less pressure there is on the university budget. The research that private funds enable ends up directing how the public funds are allocated," says Theresa Podoll, executive director of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society.

Mehlhoff explains a bit why the research centers test the seeds that various companies market and what they charge for a plot of ground.

"Anytime we do research with a private company on a product, it is not an endorsement of that product," he says. "We’re doing a service to the producer and the company by carrying out unbiased research and then reporting the results so that farmers can make better decisions" rather than buying into the claims made by advertisers. They simply provide the data. Some of that can be found by going to http://www.ag.ndsu.nodak.edu/research.htm and then scrolling down to research extension centers. All test results are published here unless a confidentiality agreement was signed, which is the case with the transgenic wheat.

Whenever the research center at Langdon or elsewhere "partners with an ag business, we charge them to put in plots, anywhere from $50 to $100 per variety, per plot," Mehlhoff says. One plot typically measures 10 by 20 feet. If five varieties were being tested on one plot, the company would pay the research center $500. But the charge varies by crop.

More field test permits

Monsanto has permits from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Agency (APHIS) to test its biotech wheat on 138 acres in the state this year. That’s up from 120 acres last year and 71 acres in 2000, according to information from the North Dakota Department of Agriculture.

However, field tests supposedly are underway on only 10 acres, according to Monsanto via a North Dakota Department of Agriculture spokesperson.

In Cavalier County, the location of the Langdon center, there are permits for 13 acres of tests, up from 5 acres in 2001. The only actual field trial in the county, Mehlhoff says, is the one at his center – half an acre. If it so desired, Monsanto could contract with farmers, seed companies, or some other private entity to test the Roundup Ready wheat on the other 12 and a half permitted acres.

The only permit information that’s released to the public consists of the number of acres, the county and the organization, which in this case is Monsanto. Everything else is classified as "Confidential Business Information."

APHIS has been asking Monsanto for the specific trial site locations so that it can arrange for possible inspections, according to state officials.

The difficulty of learning about field trials of genetically engineered crops is nothing new to Richard Caplan of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) and author of "Raising Risk: Field Testing of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S." (http://pirg.org/ge/reports/RaisingRisk.pdf).

"APHIS is not adequately informing the public about these field tests," Caplan says. "I think it’s clear this [biotechnology] industry is, to be generous, self regulating, but to be more accurate, it’s unregulated."


Given the public (and private) trials of transgenic wheat in the state, Todd Leake wants NDSU to certify the genetic purity of the foundation wheat stocks. So far, he hasn’t made much headway.

"Here we go another year and we still don’t know the GMO [genetically modified organism] status for our foundation seed stocks," Leake says.

In response to his requests came a letter from Albert Schneiter, chairman of the NDSU Plant Sciences Department, in which he stated: "No seedstocks or plant breeding program in the world can assure with absolute accuracy that any small grains variety is 100% pure genetically."

Cross-pollination is much less of a concern than is mixing of seeds during planting, processing, transportation or storage, Schneiter says.

He’s probably right, but the issue of contamination in the field during pollination should be taken seriously, say some experts.

"If you have two wheat fields close together, meaning separated by a road, you are more than likely to have at least some cross-contamination," says Roberto Guadagnuolo, Ph.D., a geneticist and specialist in wheat gene flow at the University of NeuChatel in Switzerland.

Although there isn’t voluminous data on the subject, wheat pollen usually is viable for about 30 minutes, but can live for as much as an hour in the right conditions. "If one throws in a good wind, then the pollen may or may not be viable by the time it lands on another wheat plant, depending on the temperature and humidity," he says.

There isn’t much data on cross-contamination of wheat varieties because of few studies have been done, Guadagnuolo says. They are difficult to set up, but mainly breeders knew wheat was highly self-pollinating and even if crossing happened, they could eliminate unwanted traits in later generations. But now, with the onset of what likely will be patented transgenic wheat varieties that many foreign markets do not want to buy, farmers are concerned about ANY amount of crossing.

The results of a 1998 study published in the journal Nature suggest that the pollen of transgenic plants might or could be more promiscuous than that of their non-genetically engineered counterparts.

The researchers found that a transgenic version of highly self-pollinating Arabidopsis thaliana "showed a dramatically increased ability to donate pollen to nearby wild-type mothers compared with A. thaliana mutants expressing the same mutant allele as the transgenic plants." (An allele is one member of a pair or series of genes that occupy a specific position on a specific chromosome.)

"Although A. thaliana is unlikely to become a pernicious weed, these results show that genetic engineering can substantially increase the probability of transgene escape, even in a species considered to be almost completely selfing," the researchers wrote.

(The study is available at http://www.biotech-info.net/promiscuity_transgenic.html)

Wheat typically outcrosses at less than 5 percent, says Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder at Washington State University, but "if it weren’t a concern, foundation seed growers wouldn’t isolate wheat as they do. They isolate it, so it must be to avoid some crossing."

"When you grow wheat as I have, you’ve been out there during pollination," Leake says. "I have been in the pollen that’s blowing around. If wheat did self-pollinate completely we’d have no need to create foundation seed. This whole argument that wheat is a self-pollinating plant diverts attention from the obvious arguments of cross-pollination."

The possibility of transgenic wheat crossing with its conventional or organic counterparts is not the only concern, though. What if it were to cross with a weed that haunts wheat growers: jointed goatgrass?

"You can have hybridization in both directions between wheat and jointed goat grass," says Guadagnuolo, the Swiss geneticist. "Although the resulting hybrids are highly sterile, there are some that produce a few seeds."

In one experiment, he had 80 goatgrass plants, a pernicious weed, in a wheat field. He harvested the seeds from the weed and sowed some of them, which sprouted into 2,400 plants, 85 of which were goat grass-wheat hybrids. Those plants produced 13 seeds, 12 of which germinated and still had wheat DNA in their genome.

The implication is that a wheat variety genetically engineered to resist an herbicide could pass the gene that confers its resistance to the goat grass weed. That could spell trouble. (See past story – "Scientist points out possibility of Roundup Ready wheat crossing with goatgrass weed;" http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=231)

Concerned citizens take action

The Global Justice Action Summit (http://www.globaljas.org), slated for June 20-24 in Missoula, Montana, will address the issue of genetically modified crops in general, and of Roundup Ready wheat in particular.

"Just when the wheatfields of the Northern Plains face the imminent introduction of genetically engineered wheat, an Agriculture Forum in Missoula, Montana, will convene regional and world speakers to address the issues of transgenic wheat, the patenting of life and the privatization of land grant universities," according to a press release from organizers of the summit. "June 22 is the date for the forum which will also showcase local-food and family-farm initiatives from the region and world, and mark the beginning of the Northern Plains Wheat Campaign to protect Montana's valuable wheat from irreversible genetic contamination."

Stephen Jones, the Washington Sate University wheat breeder, will be at the summit to address what he sees as the dangers of corporate sponsorship of research at land grant universities.

"Do we only ask questions that have proprietary answers," he asks. "The public is losing its voice in our research."

The Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society ( http://www.npsas.org) also is working to stop genetically engineered wheat. As mentioned in our May story on the issue ( http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=698), it is circulating a petition calling for the state to ensure that all foundation wheat seed stocks are kept clean during development of Roundup Ready wheat.

The Society also has testified to the Interim Agriculture Committee of the state legislature about the deleterious effect that releasing transgenic wheat would have on organic growers, says Theresa Podoll, executive director of the organization.

The Dakota Resource Council ( http://www.drcinfo.com/) hopes to have a renowned economist testify about the potential market problems with transgenic wheat during the July meeting of that legislative committee, according to a Resource Council spokesperson.

The Council is organizing statewide town meetings for the fall to which it hopes to invite economists and flour millers from the European Union and Japan. The message: they’ll refuse to buy genetically engineered wheat even if it has regulatory approval.

Editor’s note: In accordance with its policy toward CropChoice, Monsanto spokespersons had no comment on this story.