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ND lawmakers endorse study of GM wheat impacts, farmer sees possible 2003 commercialization

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- The North Dakota legislature's interim Agriculture Committee yesterday endorsed a bill that would create a state board to study the impacts of genetically engineered wheat. It prevented the introduction of an amendment calling for a moratorium on transgenic wheat and declined to endorse a bill placing liability on biotechnology companies. One farmer suspects that Monsanto might be trying to introduce its genetically engineered wheat before 2005.

As it did with the transgenic soybeans, canola, cotton and corn of the same name, Monsanto engineered a variety of hard red spring wheat to resist glyphosate, the active ingredient in its Roundup herbicide.

But unlike the Roundup Ready corn and soybeans that go mostly to feed livestock, wheat is primarily people food. And people in Europe and Japan, the top two buyers of the hard red spring wheat grown in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Montana, insist that they'll go elsewhere if this latest batch of biotech sprouts in the United States and Canada.

Even farmers who grow organic and conventional wheat might face the wrath of consumer rejection. Why? Genetic contamination of their crops could happen because of cross-pollination or wind and water moving seed from field to field. Human and machine errors could lead to mixing of seed during processing, distribution and planting.

The same is true of grain handling, say two representatives of the U.S. grain trade. They see segregation as a major obstacle.

"It would be a nightmare to try to separate it," says one elevator operator. "Picture it. You've got a line of trucks and you've got to test every load. It slows down the process. Once this stuff is released, it's going to spread."

Although Monsanto has not even introduced Roundup Ready wheat, domestic wheat buyers are requesting affidavits attesting to the absence of genetically modified organisms, says a flour-milling source.

"I absolutely believe a moratorium on GMO wheat is needed," he says. "There may be pluses for a producer, but if no one wants to buy it, the farmer might as well be growing Jerusalem artichokes."

But the moratorium route has been rocky. During the last session of the Legislative Assembly in 2001, a moratorium bill scaled the full House and then the Senate Agriculture Committee before being transformed into a study in the Senate. Yesterday's interim legislative session in Bismarck followed much the same tack with the endorsement of the bill creating a state board to evaluate the impacts of Monsanto's wheat. The bill's fate is now up to the Legislative Assembly when it convenes in January 2003.

Parliamentary maneuvers prevented Rep. April Fairfield from amending the bill with language imposing a moratorium on bio-engineered wheat until 2005, says organic wheat farmer Donald Vig, a meeting attendee.

Even lawmakers who support Roundup Ready wheat, including Terry Wanzek, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, should view a temporary stop on this wheat while assessing its market impacts no differently than they would moratoriums imposed while resolving phytosanitary issues such as the Karnal blunt fungal disease, says Emerado farmer Todd Leake. What's more, if the legislature doesn't pass a moratorium next year, and the board members were to uncover a problem in 2004 when lawmakers don't meet, what action could they realistically take? By the next year, Monsanto would be introducing the product.

Monsanto spokespeople would not comment on this story, but they've said in the past that the company will not introduce Roundup Ready wheat until it has gained market acceptance in all major wheat buying countries. It thinks that will happen in 2005.

But the definition of market acceptance is up to Monsanto, says Leake, adding that its main tactic has been to delay any meaningful legislative or regulatory action.

Monsanto stated in September that it would apply to the US Department of Agriculture for deregulation of Roundup Ready wheat, which is government-speak for permission to sell it, by December of this year, he says. The Department, which normally doesn't consider market issues, would follow the same line with wheat as it did with transgenic soybeans, corn, canola and cotton: "Substantially equivalent to conventional varieties, so consider it deregulated." That means Monsanto could introduce the product by the spring of 2003.

The interim Agriculture Committee also declined to endorse Sen. Bill Bowman's liability legislation that would allow farmers to sue biotechnology companies whose products genetically contaminate their organic and conventional wheat varieties.

"The company that makes the money off this should have some liability," Bowman said, according to the Associated Press.

But liability laws would prevent the state's farmers from enjoying the benefits of transgenic wheat, said Monsanto spokesman John Olson, also according to AP. "You're going to keep (biotech companies) out of the state. I think as this whole process develops you're going to find that a lot of farmers want this product in the state."

Some in the audience and on the Committee expressed concerns that such a law would wind up pitting farmer against farmer in court.

Organic farmer Donald Vig doesn't see it that way: "If Monsanto introduces this GMO pollen into nature and the strong blowing winds of North Dakota, then they have to accept the liability that it will blow into someone else's field and economically damage them."