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Norwegian importers concerned about genetically modified wheat, Monsanto works to reassure buyers of quality product and segregation system

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice news

(Tuesday, April 27, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Norwegian grain importers are in Minneapolis this week to make their case against the prospect of genetically engineered wheat, and what they'll do if it's grown.

"We are not talking about what might happen," said Helge Remberg, marketing director for Unikorn, Norway's major grain importing company. "We're talking about what will happen the moment" the sale and planting of genetically engineered wheat is allowed. Norway, like other wheat buying countries, would not just refuse gene-modified wheat. It would shun all U.S. wheat rather than run the risk of unwanted grain ending up in a shipment of conventional wheat.

The Unikorn delegation chose Minneapolis because it's home to the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, where spring wheat and wheat futures are traded.

Dan McGuire, director of the American Corn Growers Foundation's Farmer Choice-Customer First program, and European grain trader Nicolaas Konijnendijk arranged the interview with the Norwegians.

RoundUp Ready wheat

Monsanto has engineered a gene into a variety of hard red spring wheat -- high in protein and often used in bread -- that makes it resistant to glyphosate, a herbicide the St. Louis company makes and markets under the tradename RoundUp. The result is RoundUp Ready wheat, which would allow farmers to spray RoundUp to kill many types of weeds without harming the wheat. The biotechnology and chemical corporation has been field testing the wheat in the United States and Canada. It has applications pending with the Canadian, Japanese, U.S. and other governments for approval of commercial planting and sales.

"We are pursuing regulatory approval in various markets to make sure the food, feed and environmental safety of RoundUp Ready wheat is demonstrated," said Chris Horner, a Monsanto spokesman.

That's the first in a series of six milestones the company has established for itself on the road to commercial introduction of its product. Regulatory approvals and marketing arrangements must be in place in major export markets, according to the Winter 2004 edition of Monsanto's "Roundup Ready Wheat Stewardship Bulletin." To make that happen the company has "...initiated dialogue with wheat buyers in export markets including the European Union and Japan to increase acceptance of biotech wheat..."

Norway is by no means a major wheat importer. Spring wheat, much of it from North America, will make up about 60,000 of the 100,000 metric tons of mill quality wheat the country anticipates importing in the almost completed 2003/2004 marketing year.

As of April 15, by comparison, the European Union had imported almost 1.8 million metric tons from the United States, 1.16 million of which was hard red spring wheat, according to U.S. Wheat Associates, the marketing arm of the American wheat exporting industry.

But Norway's inclinations against genetically engineered wheat -- and biotech food in general -- are shared by European countries, including Austria, Italy and the United Kingdom, Remberg said.

Norway was early on the scene with concern over the issue. It introduced the Gene Technology Act in 1993, which regulates the import of all living genetically modified products, including soy, corn, wheat and other crops for both livestock feed and human food. Authorities require certificates stating that imports contain less than 0.01 percent modified content, according to Unikorn. That makes its law stricter than the labeling and traceability protocol the European Union recently enacted.

Both laws would seem to bode ill for Monsanto's wheat. "Generally, we don't have any bias one way or the other" on the issue of biotech wheat itself, but the customer does matter, said a representative of the U.S. grain trade, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Customers in Europe, none, want GMO wheat."

In fact, approximately 80 percent of world buyers, including Japan, South Korea and other markets in Asia and the Middle East, do not want RoundUp Ready wheat, says McGuire of the American Corn Growers Foundation.

"We prefer the quality of North American spring wheat, but if GM wheat is grown there, we would have to switch to other suppliers such as Australia, Kazakhstan or Ukraine," said Remberg with Unikorn. The company -- operating in a 49 percent -51 percent state to local farmer cooperative ownership structure -- accounts for about 80 percent of Norwegian grain sales for the milling industry. Norway could also look to itself, having produced some 300,000 metric tons of wheat suitable for milling this year, and elsewhere in Europe.

Monsanto's segregation plan

Given its concern over countries that want non-genetically modified wheat, Monsanto dedicates a significant portion of its milestone program to working with its partners and representatives in the wheat industry to establish a system to segregate RoundUp Ready wheat, said Horner, company spokesman.

It's fourth milestone focuses on developing and implementing protocols and sampling and detection methods. "Research indicated that separating biotech and non-biotech supplies is possible with reasonable thresholds...We are continuing discussions with grain handlers to establish protocols to handle RoundUp Ready wheat grain."

But the company also is working to identify buyers who want wheat with biotech traits: "We identified and met with numerous domestic wheat users who currently are not sourcing away from other biotech crop ingredients. We are exploring the potential for value-added benefits due to variety selection and variety-specific origination."

The grain trader mentioned earlier is skeptical of this plan. Building such a segregation system would be "tremendously difficult logistically," he said. "We would have to go to farmers and buy their acreage and make sure the wheat stays separate" throughout the planting, growing, harvesting, processing and distribution process.

Back in the United States, some see the potential loss of the European wheat market harming the entire wheat industry, especially farmers.

"The [grain] coops are very worried that the moment the USA grows GMO wheat, they'll have to close a lot of their local elevators because business will plunge," said Nicolaas Konijnendijk, who works with a number of European grain importers through his Agro Consulting and Trading company. Wheat of all classes and varieties that was formally exported would have nowhere to go. Much of it likely would end up being used to feed livestock. That in turn would put downward pressure on the prices farmers receive from agribusiness for the corn and other traditionally livestock feed grains they grow.

Konijnendijk thinks that Canada ultimately will decide against RoundUp Ready wheat. The Canadian Wheat Board, which sells the country's wheat abroad, and the National Farmers Union are vehemently opposed, he said. Given the quality of its wheat and a relatively small population, the country is inclined to export.

What if genetically modified wheat were grown in all the major wheat growing nations?

"If we couldn't find completely free non-GMO sources, we might be forced to change the Gene Technology Act in Norway," Remberg said.

That prospect irritates Konijnendijk: "This is not fair anymore when the public is not willing to eat it [genetically modified food], but has no choice. We have a right to the food we want."

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