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Pushin' Roundup via Roundup Ready wheat?

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

Please note that prior to June 20th, this story was headlined, "The wheat technology fee is key."

(June 17, 2002-CropChoice news) - Monsanto frequently and publicly states that the corn, soybeans, and canola it genetically engineered to resist Roundup herbicide have helped farmers financially by reducing their input costs. The St. Louis-based biotechnology company contends that the Roundup Ready wheat it wants to commercialize sometime between 2003 and 2005 will offer more of the same benefits.

But such assertions are untrue, say transgenic crop critics, some of whom will be in Missoula, Mont., June 20 - 24 for the Global Justice Action Summit. Part of the summit will examine possible problems with agricultural biotechnology and offer sustainable farming alternatives. (http://www.globaljas.org).

Since their introduction in 1996, the proliferation of Roundup Ready crop varieties has failed to decrease the amount of the herbicide that farmers apply, increased seed costs, and created a costly nightmare for farmers and processors who want to steer clear of genetically engineered crops, say biotech skeptics.

"The business strategy of Monsanto is to push Roundup Ready technology," but not to help farmers, says North Dakota wheat grower Todd Leake, recalling a speech last year by Michael Doane, an industry affairs manager at Monsanto. "Many people think that the company's cornerstone is biotechnology, but it's not. It's the sale of Roundup. The company wants farmers to use lots of glyphosate (active ingredient in Roundup) over lots of acreage. The idea is to try to dominate the seed and herbicide market as one system." Farmers who plant Roundup Ready wheat, can spray Roundup to kill various broad leaf weeds and grasses without harming the resistant wheat.

Less Roundup applied?

Charles Benbrook, director of the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center in Sandpoint, Idaho, last year wrote a report challenging the notion that Roundup Ready technology has led to less use of the herbicide. His report, "Troubled Times Amid Commercial Success for Roundup Ready Soybeans: Glyphosate Efficacy is Slipping and Unstable Transgene Expression Erodes Plant Defenses and Yields," is available at http://www.biotech-info.net/troubledtimes.html

Expensive, patented seed

As it did with previous Roundup Ready seed varieties, Monsanto likely will require farmers to pay extra - a so-called "technology fee" - for each bag of its transgenic wheat seed. A patent on the seed would prohibit their saving the seed for subsequent replanting.

A report last year by four faculty members in the Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics at North Dakota State University (NDSU)* found that the introduction of Monsanto's genetically engineered wheat would help U.S. farmers by saving them "...about $4.46 per acre with a single applicaton of Roundup or about 4.8% of direct costs."

Problem is, the study failed to include the extra charge for the seed.

"Excluding the technology fee is a glaring weakness in their study," says Dwight Aakre, an extension farm management specialist at NDSU. "So long as the seed is patented, they're [Monsanto] not going to give it away. The cost comes out of the producers' net return."

The authors didn't have a dollar figure for the fee, since Monsanto has not commercialized the wheat, so they assumed it was zero. But they could have assumed the charge would be similar to Roundup-resistant soybeans -- $6 to $7 per bag extra.

"That would have changed completely the conclusions of their study," Aakre says.

Costly grain segregation

Segregating transgenic wheat would be harder to accomplish than corn, which hasn't been all that successful if one remembers the debacle in which Aventis' genetically engineered StarLink corn, prohibited for human consumption by the government, found its way into taco shells and other food products, says Clifford Bradley. The Montana resident, a biological pest control consultant, is helping to organize the Global Justice Action Summit mentioned earlier.

Wheat is important to Montana's economic fortunes. Farmers in Montana -- population: 900,000 people -- last year produced about 97 million bushels of wheat, or about 4.9 percent of the nation's total production, according to USDA statistics. Wheat and wheat products made up 69 percent of the state's agricultural exports last year; in 2000, wheat exports were valued at about $180 million.

Wheat is smaller than corn and there's more of it, Bradley, continues. The northern plains milling and transportation infrasrtucture is old and unequipped to accomplish this with wheat seed or grain.

"The amount of money necessary to build such a system, encompassing a 1,000-mile long rail system and to retrofit exisitng elevators or build new ones would be mind boggling," he says. "Monsanto's position is that those farmers and processors wanting to avoid transgenic wheat would have to pay segregation costs."

Indeed, the authors of the North Dakota State University report sounded similar alarms before ultimately concluding that Roundup Ready wheat would benefit farmers: "Given recent controversies regarding genetically modified (GM) commodities found in U.S. food products and the reluctance of importers of U.S. commodities to accept GM varieties, the introduction of new GM crops appears troublesome. This is particularly so when the crop, such as wheat, is intended primarily for human consumption...While herbicide-tolerant wheat varieties offer U.S. producers improved weed control, there is enormous downside potential to GM wheat introductions. There is potential for lost access to some markets and profits. This downside is magnified if thje U.S. grain handling system is unable to maintain segregation of GM [Genetically Modified] and non-GM varieties of the same commodity."

*"Modeling International Trade Impacts of Genetically Modified Wheat Introductions," Eric A. DeVuyst, Won W. Koo, Cheryl S. DeVuyst, Richard D. Taylor, Center for Agricultural Policy and Trade Studies, Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics, Agricultural Experiment Station, North Dakota State University, October 2001