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Altered waves of grain

(Monday, March 24, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Pamela Sherrid, U.S. News & World Report: It's 32 degrees, positively balmy for a winter morning in Bismarck. But inside the state capitol, additional heat is rising as the House Agriculture Committee debates biotechnology.

"I'm growing genetically modified soybeans, so I'm not antibiotech," says state Rep. Phillip Mueller. "But lots of our customers don't want genetically modified wheat, and they've told us they don't want it. So we'd better not do it."

The short history of genetically modified agriculture has been riddled with contradiction and controversy.

Spearheaded by agricultural chemical giant Monsanto, GM crops have proved a dazzling success in the United States.

The first such seeds were introduced in 1996, and already 75 percent of soybean acreage and 34 percent of corn acreage are planted with GM varieties. But in many other countries, it's a different story. Europeans, more traditional-minded and fearful after the mad cow disease debacle, largely reject GM food, and Japan and many developing nations share their concerns about potential risks to human health and the environment. Can't win. This poses a dilemma for farmers, who want the cost-lowering benefits of GM seed, like the ability to withstand herbicides or resist pests, but fear losing export markets. Proponents also believe GM crops can help feed the world's hungry. Earlier this year, the United States was set to sue the European Union for its anti-GM policies but backed off to avoid antagonizing its allies as the Iraqi war looms.

Wheat remains the last major grain without a commercialized biotech seed. But Monsanto is awaiting U.S. government approval of a wheat seed that can stand up to its popular weedkiller, Roundup. The first variety on tap is hard red spring wheat, prized for its high protein and used primarily in bread. Wheat is the biggest crop in the heavily agricultural economy of North Dakota, which is the largest grower of hard red spring wheat in the nation--with about half going to exports. "If the world decided not to buy our wheat, it could really wreck our state," says Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple. One sticking point for farmers: Before GM wheat is unleashed, there has to be a way to keep it segregated from conventional wheat. But it's not clear who will pay for the special harvesting, storage, and transport. "I take my wheat to a huge transit terminal 80 miles west of here, where they load the same grain on one long train with 110 cars," says Dennis Renner, who farms in Mandan, N.D. "They're not set up to keep stuff separate." Varieties can also intermingle through cross-pollination in the field. Tainted. Organic farmers feel that threat most acutely, as government standards state that nothing GM can be dubbed organic. Already, organic farmers can no longer grow canola because of seed stock contamination by GM canola. "If genetic modification of a crop gives a farmer such a cost advantage, it should be his responsibility to keep his pollen on his side of the fence," says Theresa Podoll, executive director of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, an organic farming group.

"This is a situation where if you adopt a technology, it could ruin my livelihood."

Even mainstream U.S. consumers may not like anyone's messing with wheat. "We are talking about the staff of life," says Betsy Faga, president of the North American Millers' Association. Most U.S. consumers don't know or care that, say, corn-syrup sweetener in processed foods is made from GM corn. But the baking industry fears consumers will react differently to biotech wheat because it is usually the main ingredient in bread, crackers, and cookies. Many experts believe agricultural biotech wouldn't be so contentious today if GM crops had been initially rolled out with nutritional benefits, like the wheat Monsanto is developing for people allergic to gluten. Clearer benefits for farmers would help, too. In North Dakota, farmers would jump at wheat modified to withstand the fungal blight scab, a variety that Syngenta, the big, Swiss- based agribusiness company, is working on. "If Monsanto were offering scab resistance, it would be a whole different ballgame," says Marvin Nelson, a crop consultant in Rolla, N.D. Even if it gets the U.S. go-ahead, Monsanto has agreed to wait until Japan and Canada give their thumbs up before marketing GM wheat. To protect exports, the company has also promised to wait until the grain industry establishes handling protocols and a system to prove that a product is GM free.

Most legislators in North Dakota see biotech as the future of agriculture and don't want to discourage private investment in research and development. That's why they recently rejected bills that would have given the state, not Monsanto, the power to control the timing of GM wheat's release. But opponents are taking their case to the federal government. Commercializing GM wheat is surely no piece of cake. GRAPHIC: Picture, North Dakotans ponder the future of wheat, their mainstay.