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ND legislators get an earful on GM wheat issue

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Friday, July 12, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- Wednesday's meeting of the North Dakota Interim Agriculture Committee lived up to its billing: contentious.

Twelve of the senators and representatives who serve on the committee that meets periodically between regular sessions of the state Legislative Assembly were on hand to hear presentations from various sides of the debate about whether the state should allow the sale and planting of genetically modified wheat.

One farmer, two agricultural economists and a geneticist shared with CropChoice some of the thoughts they presented to the panel.

Monsanto wants to introduce its Roundup Ready wheat, engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup, by 2005. But major wheat buyers, namely Japan and the European Union, have said they'll reject any wheat that is genetically modified or that exhibits such traits.

Given concern about the threat to the export of wheat and wheat products that in 2000 were worth $312 million1, lawmakers almost passed a moratorium on transgenic wheat during last year's legislative assembly. Under pressure from Monsanto, they transformed the bill into a study on the possible economic and agronomic effects of Roundup Ready wheat.

Many of the farmers and others in the audience at Wednesday's hearing would like to see the interim panel recommend the introduction of a new moratorium bill during the next session of the state legislature, which begins in January 2003.

Linda Rauser, who farms and ranches in the northwestern part of the state, is one of them.

"As far as our customers are concerned, genetically modified wheat is a contaminant, and they don't want it," she told the committee. "North Dakota is a leader in the U.S. wheat industry. It's the government's duty to protect producers from these contaminants."

Bill Wilson, an agricultural economist at North Dakota State University, believes that Roundup Ready wheat could benefit the state's growers and should be given a chance. Not only would it make weed control easier, but successfully segregating it would cost growers only about 3 to 5 cents per bushel.

The average elevator in the northern plains has about 30 bins, he said. A survey done last year revealed that elevators use about 19 of their bins to segregate by various factors, including grain grading, protein content, test weight, and dockage (the amount of money docked from a farmer's check because of weed seeds, chaff and other matter that end up in the grain during combining). Given this, country elevators easily could devote some of those bins to keeping Roundup-resistant wheat and its conventional counterpart separate. He predicted that elevators would specialize in the handling of one of the wheat types. Processing systems in other parts of the country, where farmers don't grow as much or as many differnet types of wheat, and so don't have the capacity or complexity to segregate, would find themselves at a disadvantage compared with North Dakota.

Todd Leake, a farmer from Emerado, disagreed.

The northern plains and western Canadian grain handling system is based on bulk, said Leake, who serves on the board of directors of the local elevator. Meeting even a 1 percent threshold would be impossible. At harvest time, when the trucks are lined up at elevators to empty their loads of wheat and return as quickly as possible to the fields, there's no time to completeley clear grain from elevator pits. That means that that the remnants of previous loads get mixed in with later ones.

Indeed, if the wheat couldn't be segregated, then it would negatively impact exports and prices, said Robert Wisner, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University. About 80 percent of the hard red spring wheat exports go to the 22 countries that require the labeling of genetically engineered foods and crops. Another 15 likely will have such laws in the next 2 to 3 years.

Channeling grain to meet even a 1 percent tolerance for the presence of genetically modified organisms, not to mention the 0.5 percent threshhold that the European Union is two legislative steps from adopting as law, would be very difficult, he said. Contamination could happen at various points -- elevator dump pits, legs, conveyors, dryer systems, train cars and trucks.

With that in mind, he predicted the loss of half the export market and, worst case scenario, a one-third decline in the prices that producers receive for their wheat.

Given that prices for spring wheat have dropped consistently over the last 5 seasons, from an average of $4.05 per bushel in the 1996-97 marketing year to $2.79 last year1, Todd Leake said that growers can't take much more of less for their crops.

A transgenic-inspired price drop to between $1.75 and $2.30 per bushel would be "an all-time low for wheat," he said. "We would become the residual suppliers of [livestock] feed wheat, the suppliers of last resort."

Even that is no sure thing.

Since losing virtually all of its corn exports to the European Union in 1998 because of the biotech issue, much of that grain has been diverted into livestock feed, Wisner said. But wheat is different. It goes primarily to human food uses. While wheat can be and is used for feed, one should consider Japan's announcement on July 1 that beginning next April, it will require genetic trait tests on all livestock feed.

What about the fact that organic wheat, which isn't allowed to contain genetically modified organisms, is grown and processed separately? Why couldn't the same be done for conventional wheat? Leake points out that organic wheat generally bypasses the elevator systems and goes straight to the mills. Monsanto wants its transgenic wheat to be part of the mainstream, bulk processing and distribution system. In essence, he said, genetically modifed wheat would become conventional. Farmers wishing to grow non-transgenic varieties would have to pay a substantial amount of money to build segregation systems. Would that "specialty" grain fetch enough per bushel to at least offset the cost of keeping them separate? Doubtful.

Building such a system is unrealistic, Wisner added. The volume of wheat exported to the EU and other countries that require labels on genetically modified foods far exceeds the organic volumes marketed off the farms. That means they would have to go through the bulk marketing system.

But that whole question is moot, Leake noted, if one considers the spread of volunteer Roundup Ready wheat.

Anita Brule-Babel, a wheat breeder and geneticist at the University of Manitoba, shared three of the points she raised during the interim legislative meeting. Much of this is based on the behavior of all wheat and on the spread of Roundup-resistant canola in Canada.

1. Roundup-resistant wheat volunteers can persist in fields for up to 5 years.

2. Farmers who choose to avoid planting Roundup Ready seeds, but who routinely use the Roundup herbicide to control weeds before planting or after harvest would face a challenge. Wheat commonly outcrosses at a rate of 1 to 3 percent within 30 meters. Neighbors' transgenic wheat could outcross with their wheat. Initially, the low levels of contamination wouldn't be problematic, but in subsequent years, as the growers applied Roundup, they would unwittingly preferentially select for the herbicide-resistant volunteers.

"Over time, you get a higher proportion of the population that's resistant," Brule-Babel said. "I expect that within 5 years, we'd see real problems with volunteers, depending on how readily the technology is adopted."

Farmers in Canada have had this problem with Roundup-resistant canola volunteers. To deal with it, they've had to add MCPA, a broadleaf herbicide, to their herbicide mix to control them. That has cost about $3 extra per acre. Using MCPA to kill Roundup-resistant wheat volunteers would run growers $10 per acre.

"It's the farmer who didn't choose to use the technology who is having to spray more herbicides" to control the Roundup-resistant wheat volunteers, she said.

3. Organic producers could experience problems because of initial outcrossing and would see low levels of genetically modified traits in their wheat.

"You'll not be able to guarantee zero appearance of GM traits in those crops," she said. Over time, any thresholds the organic industry does establish would have to be raised because of the spread of the Roundup Ready traits.


1. North Dakota Agricultural Statistics Annual Book; http://www.nass.usda.gov/nd/abindex.htm