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Biotech wheat: Curse or blessing?

(Monday, March 8, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Wired.com, 03/07/04: WASHINGTON -- Biotech wheat has yet to show whether it will be a blessing or a curse to U.S. growers, and China's increased interest in biotech is making the dilemma more intense.

If the United States were to sell biotech wheat to buyers in China, it might lose its wheat market in Japan, which wants nothing to do with genetically engineered varieties.

China signaled more interest in biotech products last month by reducing paperwork requirements for imports of five Monsanto varieties of genetically modified corn, soybeans and cotton. Three of the products resist the company's Roundup herbicide, letting growers kill weeds without also killing their crops.

The approvals raise expectations that China might soon accept Monsanto's Roundup Ready wheat, said Michael Doane, Monsanto's director of industry affairs.

Chinese acceptance would be a powerful inducement for Americans to grow the wheat.

China is the largest wheat consumer in the world and seems very open to biotech products, said Alan Tracy, president of U.S. Wheat Associates, a wheat export trade group. Although China grows 93.5 million tons a year, it consumes 16.5 million tons more.

It is now No. 36 among U.S. wheat buyers, but the Agriculture Department expects China will want more food imports as it industrializes. In the 1990s, before it increased its wheat production, China ranked among the top 5 U.S. markets.

Japan presents a powerful inducement not to grow the wheat.

In the last marketing year, which began in June of 2002, Japan was America's top wheat importer, taking more than 3 million tons of America's approximately 70.5 million ton harvest.

Japanese wheat buyers have said they will accept no wheat -- biotech or conventional -- from any nation that grows biotech wheat. The Japanese are afraid that biotech varieties will contaminate conventional wheat shipped overseas.

So, there's the dilemma: If U.S. wheat farmers were to switch to biotech wheat, they would alienate a crucial customer. "That's the trade-off we are weighing at the moment," said Daren Coppock, chief executive officer of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

It has left American farmers split on whether to support Monsanto's application for federal approvals needed to grow and sell the wheat. The Agriculture Department's main interest is whether scientific data show the new variety would pose a risk to the environment. Supporters of biotech say the government should stick to decision-making based on the science.

Critics of genetically engineered crops, however, have asked the department to reject Monsanto's application until it has examined the risk of losing export markets. On their side are chapters of the National Farmers Union in wheat-producing Minnesota and Nebraska.

The wheat growers association's Coppock said Roundup Ready's promised ability to reduce weeds would let U.S. farmers harvest more wheat per acre and compete better against less-developed nations with lower production costs.

Tracy, of the wheat exporters trade group, predicted biotech eventually would conquer the world, if growers were to pump a lot of it into the market. Once biotech is everywhere, even anti-biotech buyers would have to accept that some will slip into the products they take, he said.

"Eventually, buyers are going to have to back off a zero-tolerance stance," Tracy said. "It's just not practical."

Monsanto, for its part, is treating its wheat like Paul Masson promoted its wine, with a promise to sell none before its time. The company has said it won't market biotech wheat unless the product can be kept separate from conventional wheat and Japanese regulators clear biotech harvests for sale.

Such approval is not impossible, Coppock said. "Japan has a scientifically rigorous process," he said. "We have confidence science will prevail."

Source: http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,62570,00.html