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Farmer group forms to promote biotech wheat

(Tuesday, May 18, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Blake Nicholson, Associated Press: BISMARCK, N.D. - Seven farmers in North Dakota and Montana have formed a group to promote biotech wheat, a grain many wheat-buying countries do not want.

The new group is called Growers for Wheat Biotechnology Inc., said its chairman, Valley City farmer Al Skogen.

"For those of us who believe that biotechnology is a promising tool to keep our industry viable, we felt there was a need for a voice to tell the positive side of the story," he said.

"The primary purpose ... is to provide factual, credible information on biotechnology in wheat so that we all can make informed decisions about the future of our industry," Skogen said.

St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. said Monday that it has halted development of biotech spring wheat that is unaffected by the company's Roundup weed killer. Monsanto cited a drop in U.S. and Canadian spring wheat acreage and a lack of demand for biotech wheat.

Some of North Dakota's main export customers such as Japan say they do not want genetically modified grain because they worry it is unsafe and could harm the environment. Some farmers fear they will lose sales if biotech wheat is introduced into the market.

A proposed state initiative would give North Dakota's agriculture commissioner veto power over biotech wheat plantings. Supporters have until Aug. 4 to get the required signatures to put the measure on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Medina pastor Karl Limvere, chairman of the initiative's sponsoring committee, said he doubted the formation of the pro-biotech wheat group would hurt his group's effort.

"A discussion about biotech wheat is good, if you have one group of producers' viewpoints versus another group of producers' viewpoints," he said. "That, I think, will be productive.

"Our effort isn't anti-biotech," Limvere said. "What we want to have some assurances of is that before biotech wheat is released, that the problems associated with it and the questions associated with it are resolved. And if they're resolved, then there's no reason why the state agriculture commissioner ... wouldn't be able to proceed to approve it."

Grace City farmer Jeff Topp, one of the seven founders of the new group, said it was not formed to counter the initiative effort.

"It's more just to get a voice out there. Really, there isn't one right now," he said. "The intent is to get the facts out there, the facts on why we would like to see this technology go forward."

Skogen said he believes Monsanto's decision could influence other private and public research entities to rethink their biotech efforts in wheat. "At the very least, research on wheat will continue to fall behind the leading biotech crops now being grown," he said.

Monsanto produces biotech corn, cotton and oilseeds. Proponents of genetically modified varieties say they cut down on chemical costs and are friendlier to the environment.

"Wheat production is still the backbone of crop production in North Dakota and Montana, but lack of new technology opportunities has caused wheat to lose its competitiveness," said Kim Murray, a Froid, Mont., farmer who serves as secretary-treasurer of the new group.

Topp said farmers in the group are funding the effort themselves but looking for other money sources.

Source: http://www.grandforks.com/mld/grandforks/news/state/8670145.htm