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Organic farmer says USDA must investigate economic effects of biotech wheat before approving it

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Tuesday, March 11, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- North Dakota organic wheat grower Donald Vig wants the U.S. Department of Agriculture to carefully study and consider the economic consequences of genetically engineered hard red spring wheat before allowing its sale. So does Montana farmer Helen Waller.

That's why they and other wheat growers signed onto a petition that several farm and rural advocacy organizations sent to the USDA's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) today.

The Dakota Resource Council, Northern Plains Resource Council, National Family Farm Coalition, Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, and the Western Organization of Resource Councils want APHIS to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement focused on the economic impacts of introducing genetically engineered wheat. With previous biotech crop varieties, APHIS has carried out environmental assessments that don't consider socio-economic issues. Failure to address the concerns with transgenic wheat could set the stage for a lawsuit, says Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety; he filed the petition for the groups.

In December, Monsanto petitioned APHIS to deregulate the wheat it engineered to resist the glyphosate herbicide, marketed under the trade name Roundup. Deregulation would clear the way for commercial planting of Roundup Ready wheat, which Monsanto would like to see by 2005. Although no one from the company would comment on this story, they have publicly stated that the wheat will not be commercialized without market acceptance.

USDA failure to consider the economic issues would signal to Donald Vig that "it's not protecting farmers."

The organic certification agency that tests his wheat before it enters European markets maintains a zero tolerance for genetically modified traits. Were his wheat to be contaminated, Vig says he'd go from making more than $7 per bushel to $2 or less per bushel. He could end up selling the wheat as conventional livestock feed.

That would cripple his farm.

"Organic farming is crop rotation," he says. "You eliminate enough crops in the rotation and you don't have a farm anymore." He used to grow soybeans but stopped when most of his neighbors began planting Roundup Ready varieties. Vig knew about the experience of Tom Wiley, who also signed the biotech wheat petition. A few years ago, Wiley was growing specialty soybeans for the Japanese market. When his crop tested positive for transgenic traits, the buyer canceled the contract. Wiley lost $10,000.

Helen Waller shares Vig's concern about the possible negative economic fortunes in store with Roundup Ready wheat.

"If we lose our markets, then our farm and many others will not be economically viable," says Waller, who has grown wheat in eastern Montana for 50 years.

Europe and Asia, which currently buy the majority of U.S. hard red spring wheat, have often said that they will reject genetically engineered varieties.

A report prepared by grain-outlook specialist Robert Wisner, an Iowa State University economics professor, backs up farmers’ fears. According to Wisner’s report, the price of hard spring wheat could drop by about one-third if a genetically modified variety is introduced commercially into Montana or North Dakota in the next two to six years.

“Every available indicator of foreign consumer demand points to a high risk of GM wheat rejection in export markets,” Wisner says.

The USDA petition and a copy of Robert Wisner’s report are available at http://www.worc.org