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Biotech wheat pits farmer vs. farmer

(Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Judith Graham and Andrew Martin, Chicago Tribune, 01/25/04:

Terry Wanzek, a farmer and politician, promotes genetically modified wheat as a potential savior for the state's sluggish farm economy. But that position damaged his political career: Wanzek lost his state Senate seat to an opponent who ran on an anti-biotech wheat platform.

The lonely wheat fields of North Dakota have become the front line in an escalating international debate over genetically modified wheat, a new product from agricultural giant Monsanto that is being reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration.

The battle has pitted farmer against farmer, with proponents of the new technology arguing that biotech wheat will pull the grain growers out of years of malaise and opponents worrying that it could contaminate their fields and scare off foreign customers who are wary of genetic modification.

The biotech wheat debate even reached the Statehouse in Bismarck, where the North Dakota House of Representatives passed a moratorium on biotech wheat that later was defeated by the Senate. Some North Dakota farmers say they will refuse to plant the crop. "I can't envision why we want to do this," said Jim Bobb, the grain division manager for Southwest Grain in Taylor, N.D. "Europe is opposed to this. [South] Korea doesn't want it. There are very few customers who have said they will take it."

In the span of six weeks this fall, Bobb said five groups of foreign business people made the long trek to his offices to ask essentially the same question: Are North Dakota farmers going to plant genetically modified wheat? "It's a good two- or three-hour discussion every time," Bobb said. "I don't think the Japanese left very comfortably, sad to say."

Heartland of controversy

Genetically modified wheat is controversial in other states as well but nowhere as much as here. North Dakota is the largest producer of hard red spring wheat, the modified version of which Monsanto hopes to market. More than three dozen projects are underway to develop genetically engineered wheat plants, but Monsanto is the first to seek regulatory approval, hoping to replicate the success it has had with genetically modified corn and soybeans. But while those crops have been accepted with relatively little controversy, the debate over genetically engineered wheat has been far more intense, mostly because so much of the American crop--nearly half--is sold abroad, where biotech crops have received a chilly reception.

Consumers in Japan, South Korea and in Europe, who are some of America's biggest customers for wheat, have indicated that they do not want a bioengineered version of the crop.

Just how much international markets matter to U.S. agriculture was underscored by the discovery of mad cow disease last month. Within a week, 90 percent of export markets closed their doors to U.S. beef.

Altered wheat a linchpin

Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the non-profit Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, which tracks the industry, said a rejection of genetically modified wheat by American farmers could have a chilling effect on the overall biotech industry because companies would be reluctant to invest in other plants.

"I think that wheat is really the bellwether of where the technology is going to go," Rodemeyer said. "The real question is whether the market is going to accept biotechnology in another food crop."

Lynn Selle, a farmer in Halliday, said he fears that farmers will have no way to contain biotech wheat once its planted. Once genetically modified wheat is planted, he said, there are so many ways it can spread--from combines traveling down the road to trucks going to grain elevators to birds carrying pollen--that it would be impossible to keep it separate from regular wheat. Some foreign buyers have indicated they will not accept conventional American wheat if it is contaminated with even small amounts of biotech wheat.

"Right now our wheat is a proven product," Selle said. "Why mess with it?"