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ND research extension centers say ‘No’ to transgenic wheat trials

By Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(May 6, 2002 – CropChoice news) – Wishing to avoid potential genetic contamination of pure wheat seed, the administrators of the Carrington Research Extension Center and the North Central Research Extension Center decided against hosting nursery trials for transgenic (genetically modified) wheat. The actions of these North Dakota State University research centers includes the Round-up Ready wheat – named for its resistance to the herbicide Round-up (glyphosate) – that Monsanto wants to commercialize some time between 2003 and 2005.

Foundation seeds are grown directly from breeders’ seed, considered to be seed in its purest form. Scientists, farmers and consumers have expressed concerns that transgenic varieties, produced when genes are taken from one species and inserted into the genetic structure of another species, will contaminate pure seed stocks through cross-pollination and co-mingling.

"Wheat growers have noted the zero tolerance for GMO contamination [of wheat] in the international marketplace, so we decided not to host the nursery trials in 2002," said Jay Fisher, director of the North Central Research Extension Center. He will gauge grower and market acceptance in deciding whether to participate in the trials in 2003.

"I think Jay Fisher made a good decision in that it’s vital that we keep the foundation stocks free from contamination from fields tests of GMO wheat," said Todd Leake, a North Dakota wheat grower. He emphasized that eliminating -- not minimizing -- gene flow is critical. Were foundation seed to be contaminated, then all seed in the state would in time carry genetically modified traits.

Nearly 70 percent of Canadian wheat and more than 50 percent of U.S. wheat is exported. According to Canadian Wheat Board estimates, two-thirds of international buyers do not want to buy genetically modified wheat. A survey of the U.S. customer base for hard red spring wheat indicates that 65 percent are opposed to Round-up Ready (RR) wheat.

The controversy over the research and proposed release of this transgenic wheat continues to escalate. According to Monsanto Canada spokesperson Trish Jordan, the company openly admits that it will be impossible to keep grain 100 percent free of its genetic property: "To be able to say zero percent, that's impossible. We've been quite open about that."

In a paper that that they presented at the 2001 Manitoba Agronomists Conference, researchers from the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Winnipeg in Canada wrote that, "It is apparent that there is a broad gene-bridge in spring wheat production-- providing high risk for gene escape from Round-up Ready wheat. Gene escape will lead to both marketing and management problems with spring wheat."

North Dakota State University is under contract with Monsanto to conduct the nursery trials for transgenic wheat containing the company’s Round-up Ready technology. Each Research Extension Center was given the option of whether to participate. Nursery trials consist of taking the transgenic crosses made in the laboratory and grown out in the greenhouse and then field testing hundreds of first, second and third generations to identify the material they are seeking.

The North Central Research Extension Center at Minot consulted their Board of Visitors, the Center’s advisory board, on the issue of whether or not to host Roundup Ready wheat research given the prominence of their Foundation Seedstocks program, which runs a close second to the Agronomy Seed Farm’s program at Casselton. The Board of Visitors consists of two producers from each of the counties that the research center serves. The board voted overwhelming not to host any transgenic wheat research at the center with 15 members voting against it, three voting to go ahead, and 2 undecided.

The Carrington Research Extension Center is not participating in the nursery trials, but still will host Round-up Ready wheat on their site. Carrington is involved in a three-year crop-sequencing project involving Round-up varieties with 2002 being the third and final year for that project. As in years past, the Center’s equipment and lab will not be used for any transgenic research.

The Research Extension Centers at Dickinson, Streeter, Hettinger, and Williston did not plan to host any of the 2002 transgenic Uniform Spring Wheat Nursery Trials, nor are they hosting any other transgenic wheat plots in 2002. Williston Research Extension Center (WREC) may be designated to be free of any transgenic wheat to accommodate research that is transgenic sensitive.

"We applaud the Directors at the Minot and Carrington Research Extension Centers and the Board of Visitors for their foresight and for their protective actions on behalf of our seedstocks, the food security of this region, and that of the food markets we serve," said Janet Jacobson, president of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society.

The Society is circulating a "Save Our Seed" petition directed to the land grant institutions in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. The petition calls on land grant institutions to prohibit the planting and handling of transgenic crops on sites where germplasm or foundation seedstocks are grown, conditioned, or stored.

"There are many pathways to transgenic contamination and as long as transgenic varieties are grown, conditioned, or stored on the same sites as foundation seedstocks the risks to the purity of our seedstocks are too high," said Jacobson. For more information or to participate in the "Save Our Seed" effort visit http://www.npsas.org/SaveOurSeed.html