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The heartland wrestles with biotechnology

(Tuesday, April 22, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Justin Gillis, Washington Post:

MANNING, N.D. -- In a bar in this hamlet on the great American prairie, some wheat farmers gathered one night not long ago. They drove for miles through blowing snow, and more than 50 of them packed the Little Knife Saloon, doubling the regular population of Manning. They came to ask questions about a new kind of wheat, and the more they heard from a panel skeptical of the crop, the more their brows knitted in worry.

The wheat was created in a St. Louis biology laboratory, through genetic engineering. It is meant to benefit farmers, but a lot of people in the room fretted that it would put them out of business.

"Nobody has really found out if this stuff is safe," declared Steven Pollestad, who drove 30 miles from his family farm near Halliday and stood at the back, thumbs hitched in his jeans. "The foreign buyers have flat out said they won't buy it. And I believe they won't."

In the states that grow the fabled amber waves of grain that symbolize America's heritage of plenty, the most plentiful commodity these days is trouble.

For the first time in its decade-long push to win acceptance of genetically altered crops, Monsanto Co. of St. Louis faces significant opposition from farmers. Across the northern Great Plains and neighboring Canada, skepticism toward a forthcoming Monsanto product, called Roundup Ready wheat, has solidified into a political movement. Some farmers are so worried they want their state governments to wrest authority from federal regulators and adopt formal moratoriums on the crop.

The opposition, based largely on fear that foreign buyers will reject gene-altered wheat, potentially costing American and Canadian farmers vital markets, has only a few symbolic victories and several substantive defeats to show in statehouses and provincial legislatures so far. The critical decisions on whether to approve it still rest with regulators in Washington and Ottawa. But already, candidates have won elections by emphasizing their opposition to biotech wheat. And, facing a revolt not only from farmers but from a wary American food industry, Monsanto has been forced into a tactical retreat, stretching its timetable and issuing a long list of promises about how it would commercialize the product.

"We're pursuing a very diligent path of dialogue," said Michael Doane, Monsanto's director of industry affairs. "Over time, it has affected our strategic approach."

By no means does the opposition movement command unanimous allegiance in farm country -- the issue has split farmers, farm organizations and legislatures in at least four states and two Canadian provinces, with the pro-biotech side plausibly claiming majority support among farmers in most of those places.

But the strength of the opposition has provoked a rollicking debate. Roundup Ready wheat is emerging as a key test of whether the biotechnology industry can take charge of the destiny of a major crop used primarily as food, something it has yet to accomplish despite successes in other crops.

And the fight is becoming a prime symbol in another way, too. As genetic science creates opportunities to manipulate the plants and animals people eat, associated battles are migrating out of Washington. In the next few years, state and even local governments will confront new kinds of crops, as well as gene-altered animals and even a genetically engineered salmon. Some of these products require state permits before they can be commercialized, and many state and local governments will hear demands to keep them out. The new biology, in other words, is coming soon to state legislatures and county commissions across the land.

The change is already evident in North Dakota and neighboring states, where legislators and some ordinary citizens now speak knowledgeably about such matters as genetic drift and pollen flow. The movement has fed on the deep suspicion of corporate ethics sparked by recent scandals. Pollestad, that Halliday farmer, captured the mood in a letter to the editor of the Grand Forks Herald. He noted that Monsanto was continuing to press for quick federal approval of its wheat despite its go-slow promises, and he called on North Dakota lawmakers to give citizens a voice in the decision.

"Or, we could let Monsanto decide," he wrote. "And maybe we also could get Enron to run our utilities and Arthur Andersen to keep the books."

Recouping an Investment

The crop technology that many companies, led by Monsanto, are pushing to develop these days is an outgrowth of the vast genetic knowledge pouring from the world's research laboratories. Scientists are becoming increasingly adept at manipulating plants and animals in a way nature does not, moving genes across species to confer new traits.

Most research suggests such organisms are safe to eat, but a host of theoretical questions remain about the environmental risks, such as the possibility of creating new types of weeds or pests. That concern, plus lingering uncertainty about health effects, has led to a broad opposition movement, particularly in Europe and Japan.

In the long run, the technology offers potential benefits consumers may want, such as foods to cut the risk of heart disease or cancer. But the crops that have come to market first are primarily designed to benefit farmers by giving them greater control over weeds and insects.

Monsanto has been in the vanguard, developing varieties of corn, soybeans and cotton that resist worms and other insects. The company's biggest success, though, has been with crops designed to exploit another of its products, an herbicide called Roundup. This popular chemical kills weeds efficiently, does no harm to people or animals and readily breaks down in the environment.

But Roundup kills conventional crops as well as weeds, so farmers mostly used it to prepare their fields for planting. Monsanto scientists set out in the 1980s, using genetic engineering, to develop crops resistant to Roundup. "Roundup Ready" crops have proven wildly popular, saving farmers labor. Monsanto competitors brought similar products to market.

Not long after the crops were commercialized in the United States, in the late 1990s, a European backlash began, featuring "Frankenfood" headlines and warnings about manipulating nature. American farmers lost corn sales to Europe, but growing demand in other markets took up the slack. Neither corn nor soybeans is primarily a human food crop -- corn is largely fed to farm animals, and after the oil is squeezed out, so is most soybean meal. Cotton, of course, is used to make cloth.

Despite these successes, Monsanto has yet to recoup its huge investment in biotechnology, so the company needs new products. It is trying to conquer the fundamental cereal of Western diets -- wheat.

On past experience, the company counted on ready farmer acceptance. But wheat farmers are highly dependent on foreign markets, particularly Japan, and follow them assiduously. And wheat, as it happens, is grown in a part of North America with a long tradition of political activism among farmers, who battled banks and grain monopolies early in the 20th century, a populist tradition that persists.

Moreover, the people who run Monsanto had never met Tom and Gail Wiley.

Money-Minded Opposition

The Wileys are wheat, soybean and cattle farmers who live on a windswept farmstead at the end of a long gravel road in southeastern North Dakota. They met in Berkeley, Calif., many years ago, and Tom Wiley confesses to some counterculture dabbling in his youth.

But the Wileys are conventional, not organic, farmers, and have been more or less comfortable using pesticides and other aspects of modern farm technology since they began working Tom Wiley's family homestead in the 1970s.

In the late 1990s, events unrelated to the biotechnology industry politicized the Wileys. The federal government promulgated a crop-insurance program and then changed the payout rules after farmers had already bought their policies, a bait-and-switch that infuriated the Wileys. They led a farmer coalition that sued the government, won, and eventually got an act of Congress passed to correct the problem.

As that battle was winding down, the Wileys began hearing about Roundup Ready wheat. They'd already had one bad experience with biotech crops -- some high-grade soybeans they grew to make tofu somehow got adulterated with a small amount of Roundup Ready soybeans, probably from a neighbor's field, and buyers overseas balked.

What would happen, the Wileys wondered, if Monsanto commercialized Roundup Ready wheat and foreign buyers suddenly grew skittish about the American crop amid fears of adulteration? They talked to other farmers. Even if falling prices led growers to abandon the Monsanto product, the reputation and marketability of U.S. wheat might be permanently damaged, the farmers reasoned.

A political movement was born. At lightning speed, it won a huge victory when the lower house of North Dakota's Legislative Assembly passed a moratorium in 2001 on Roundup Ready wheat. Shocked, Monsanto and pro-biotech farm groups descended with lobbyists, and the state Senate turned the moratorium into a mere study. But when the company and farm groups began surveying major buyers of wheat, they found strong resistance to the biotech crop, especially overseas.

Sitting in their farm kitchen not long ago, the Wileys recalled their surprise as they built alliances with environmental outfits like Greenpeace that have traditionally taken a dim view of conventional farming. "I think all my life I've been an environmentalist," Gail Wiley said, her voice dropping as she added, "even though you don't say that too loudly around here."

If environmental factors influenced the Wileys' thinking, other people in North Dakota looked at the issue in strictly dollars-and-cents terms, and came out equally opposed to Roundup Ready wheat on the grounds the marketplace just was not ready for it.

As the rebellion grew, Monsanto bowed to political reality, pledging a slew of steps that the company contends will protect existing markets. Meeting all the milestones will effectively delay Roundup Ready wheat to 2005, if not later. Assuming Monsanto keeps its word, the farmers have gained a two-year moratorium without having to pass one into law.

Doane, the Monsanto industry-affairs officer, has plied North Dakota on the company's behalf. At his suggestion, a group of skeptical farmers, not including the Wileys, boarded a Monsanto plane in December and flew to St. Louis to talk to company leaders. The discussion was mostly calm, but Louis Kuster, a grower from Stanley, N.D., and a member of a state commission that promotes wheat sales, said he took offense when a company executive, Robb Fraley, seemed to imply that farmers opposing Monsanto might be advancing the agenda of radical environmental groups.

"At that point I countered, and I did raise my voice a little bit and I was a little bit angry, and I looked right straight at him and he was only about five feet away from me, and I said, 'You're not talking to the Greens here today,' " Kuster recalled. " 'We're money people. We need to make money, too.' "

'Who Can You Trust?'

Gripping the wheel of his pickup truck on a chilly North Dakota morning, an affable man named Terry Wanzek pointed with pride to the several thousand acres of fields that make up his family farm. Wanzek, squarely in the pro-biotech camp, acknowledged that the market risks cited by opponents are real. But as he showed off his farm's spotless grain-handling system, he declared the problems manageable.

Besides, Wanzek said, what kind of message would it send to a biotech industry investing billions in new technology if the very customers the companies are trying to benefit, farmers, respond by kicking them in the teeth?

People on Wanzek's side of the issue generally take the view that Monsanto's go-slow promises can be believed, and they also take seriously a decade of rulings from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture declaring biotech crops safe.

"If you can't trust EPA and you can't trust FDA and you can't trust USDA," Wanzek said as his truck crunched its way down gravel roads, "who can you trust?"

This is Monsanto's position, too -- that federal regulators will make the right decisions. But the company has been forced to acknowledge that, whatever Washington and Ottawa decide, the risk of overseas rejection is real. Monsanto has lately papered the Great Plains states with brochures outlining how it will proceed.

For starters, the company said it will wait until the United States, Canada (the nation's largest competitor in selling wheat) and Japan (its largest customer, most years) approve the crop. And the company said it will help institute "appropriate grain handling protocols" to keep biotech wheat separate from regular wheat. Monsanto acknowledges that total separation of the crops in fields, combines and grain bins is impossible but argues that adequate separation can be achieved.

Doane, the industry-affairs director, said Monsanto will honor those commitments. "We've put it in black and white," he said. But distrust of Monsanto runs deep enough in the Great Plains that politicians who support the company can pay a price.

Wanzek isn't just any farmer -- he was, until recently, the Republican chairman of the Senate agriculture committee in North Dakota's citizen-legislature. His committee was largely responsible for killing the biotech-wheat moratorium in the last legislative session. He was defeated by a Democrat last November in a campaign in which his support for biotech crops became a major issue. "The wheat deal, I think, did cost me some votes," he said.

Wanzek's opponent, April Fairfield, was one of at least three legislative candidates to use opposition to Roundup Ready wheat as a signature campaign issue. All won.

Fairfield has failed so far to win a moratorium. Lawmakers also turned down a related measure to shift legal liability to companies like Monsanto if their crops taint nearby farms. Similar legislation has stalled in Montana, South Dakota and other states where wheat revolts are underway. Republicans, many of whom initially supported the North Dakota moratorium, have closed ranks to defend the technology, largely because of Monsanto's promises.

Passions remain high. As Fairfield described her winning campaign and her losing attempts at lawmaking, in an interview in the basement cafeteria of the North Dakota Legislative Assembly in Bismarck, a fellow named Lance Hagen, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, ambled by.

"Biotech or bust, baby!" he declared. "That's our motto."

Unlikely Allies

Past midnight on a summer's evening three years ago, Larry Bohlen walked out of a Safeway supermarket in Silver Spring toting $66.32 worth of taco shells and other corn products. By the time Bohlen, director of health and environment programs at Friends of the Earth, and his allies in the environmental movement were done having the corn products tested for adulteration, they had forced American food and biotech companies into a recall costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

A biotech corn called StarLink, meant only for animal consumption, had made its way into the human food supply through sloppy grain handling. The incident foreshadowed another mishap last year, in which corn genetically engineered to grow a pig vaccine nearly made its way into food.

The problems have made large American food companies exceedingly nervous about biotechnology. More than half their products in the United States contain biotech ingredients, particularly lecithin or protein made from Roundup Ready soybeans, and they live in fear that some contamination incident will provoke a U.S. consumer backlash.

"Right now, public acceptance of biotechnology in America is relatively high," Betsy D. Holden, co-chief executive of Kraft Foods Inc., said in a recent speech in Arlington. "But how many more times can we test the public's trust before we begin to lose it?"

The food industry has been publicly skeptical of Roundup Ready wheat. Behind closed doors, according to three people privy to the discussions, the industry has been far blunter with Monsanto and its biotech allies. "Don't want it. Don't need it," one person said the message has been.

The food companies have been killing smaller biotech crops like potatoes and sugar beets for several years. Knowledgeable people say the food companies have essentially told Monsanto they will try to kill Roundup Ready wheat if the company moves forward, asking suppliers to accept only conventional wheat.

At the same time, the food companies are under political pressure from biotech supporters on Capitol Hill not to come out publicly against gene-altered crops. That makes for a volatile situation where it is hard to predict exactly what the food companies will do until the wheat is approved.

Out on the Great Plains, farmers skeptical of the crop are hoping the food companies come down as allies, but they are not counting on it. Their efforts stalled in state legislatures, the farmers recently petitioned the Agriculture Department for a full environmental and economic assessment of Roundup Ready wheat before the government grants approval.

Some farmers acknowledge that Monsanto will probably win approval eventually but say they're looking for any stalling tactic they can find.

"I feel that we have accomplished something, in that it's slowing up the process so that more thought can go into it," said Kuster, the farmer from Stanley, N.D. "The slower it goes, the more chance it has of getting done right."

This story available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A7480-2003Apr21.html