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Monsanto courts farmers on gene-altered wheat

(Thursday, March 6, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Carey Gillam, Reuters, 03/04/03: KANSAS CITY, Mo. - When leaders of the U.S. wheat industry gathered for a recent conference in New Mexico, they toasted their partnership with Monsanto Co., developer of the world's first genetically engineered wheat.

The scene reflects a major shift in the U.S. farming industry's position on a divisive issue. There has been widespread fear among American farmers that Monsanto's push for genetically modified wheat would hurt sales, especially overseas where opposition to genetically engineered crops is strongest. Winning over farmers has not been easy. Millers and food companies have said they will not buy biotech wheat for fear consumers will reject it, and the industry's export experts have warned foreign buyers could boycott U.S.-grown wheat.

Monsanto officials appear to have succeeded in allaying the fears of farmers by crisscrossing America's mid-section and promising not to roll out the new wheat until the industry is ready. Farmers want Monsanto to meet several objectives, including ensuring market acceptance.

Along the way, Monsanto has opened its checkbook, providing training, trips and parties for wheat industry leaders, and giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to universities where researchers talk up the advantages of biotech crops.

"The (farmer) sentiment has turned fairly significantly," said Dusty Tallman, former president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. "They (Monsanto) do invest in our industry. They've done a very good job of educating producers to the value of what they're going to have to offer us."

The new wheat tolerates Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, making weed control easier for farmers. And it could open the door for other biotech crops down the road, Monsanto says.

The campaign has been so successful that critics have been effectively silenced, ordered by industry leaders to talk up - not down - the impact of gene-altered wheat.

Consumer groups both in the United States and other countries have voiced concern about the unknown long-term health effects of the wheat and its impact on the environment.

But for Monsanto, the wheat is a key part of an arsenal of biotech crops aimed at turning around its sagging revenues. Wheat, with more acres planted globally than any other crop, is more widely used for human consumption than either corn or soybeans, both of which have genetically modified versions already on the market.

After more than a decade of research and development, Monsanto has made its final submissions for U.S. and Canadian regulatory approval of the new wheat. Earlier this week, Monsanto received regulatory approval for its latest biotech corn, designed to fight rootworm.


Monsanto's strategy of cozying up to key players to influence industry issues is far from unique. Its top biotech competitors, like Syngenta AG and BASF AG, also fund agricultural players up and down the food chain.

"We have both an obligation and a need to spend time doing that kind of outreach and education and putting ourselves in a position to learn," said Monsanto spokesman Michael Doane.

But as the corporate leader in the controversial arena of transgenic crops - those that are engineered with genes from other plants and sometimes other species - Monsanto's efforts to win over wheat farmers has some critics crying foul.

"They're buying goodwill," said Arthur Schafer, University of Manitoba's director of ethics studies, who has been outraged by reports that Monsanto paid travel and other expenses for some Canadian growers.

"If you're a farm leader, it's a violation of your duty to your members to accept benefits from a company that has a stake or an agenda that you have to take a position on," he said.

Monsanto's support for the industry is widespread. The company is a benefactor to the National Association of Wheat Growers, helps financially support the Wheat Quality Council, provides leadership training getaways for farmers, offers travel grants to business meetings and sponsors wheat industry gatherings around the United States.

Just last month, Monsanto was a top sponsor - complete with a margarita party - of an industry meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, wheat leaders voted to restrict their export experts from publicizing any negative views of gene-altered wheat held by foreign buyers.

Wheat leaders say their close ties to Monsanto give them more say in how and when biotech wheat will be introduced.

"If there are those who think that we're bought and paid for, they're laboring under false assumptions," said Daren Coppock, the association's chief executive. He estimated less than 15 percent of his group's funding comes from Monsanto and other corporate supporters.

Still, some say the close-knit relationship at times acts to quiet critics. After two European milling executives spoke of their opposition to gene-altered wheat at an industry meeting in Oklahoma City last summer, wheat officials fretted Monsanto would no longer sponsor their activities.

And two years ago, when North Dakota legislators were debating whether or not to impose a moratorium on genetically modified wheat, a Monsanto representative told them the company might have to discontinue funding research in the state if the measure passed. The measure failed.

Another bill seeking to regulate biotech wheat was debated this month in North Dakota's legislature, but it also failed.


Critics have long questioned corporate funding of research at public universities. For its work with Roundup Ready spring wheat, Monsanto has research partnerships with seven universities in key wheat growing states, and holds monthly conference calls to discuss research work. Last month, Monsanto flew researchers from the universities to its St. Louis, Missouri, headquarters for face-to-face discussions.

"The research follows the dollars, so who is this benefiting?" said Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder at Washington State University, one of Monsanto's partners. "Are they just coming in to these institutions and using the public-financed infrastructure to their benefit? The pressure is tremendous from Monsanto and these other corporations."

But wheat researcher James Cook, also of Washington State University, said collaborations are a necessity in times of tight state budget appropriations.

"Private and public sectors can work together and must work together for the sake of good science," said Cook, a recipient of grants from Monsanto as well as Syngenta.

At North Dakota State University, Monsanto has funded more than $200,000 in Roundup Ready wheat work. As is the case at WSU - which has a $145,000 deal with Monsanto - the relationship has created some controversy. But university officials defend the integrity of the deals.

"Scientists remain objective even though research might be funded in part by a private entity," said Ken Grafton, director of NDSU's agriculture research station.

Monsanto says the research deals benefit society overall, by developing higher-yielding and more nutritious crops.

As Monsanto determines when it will bring the new biotech wheat to market, some farmers remain skeptical of the efforts.

"They're trying to push a product there is no market for," said Louis Kuster, North Dakota Wheat Commissioner and a farmer himself. "It is going to be devastating to our market for foreign wheat."

But, he said, "Monsanto right now holds the power."