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Monsanto shelves plans for modified wheat

(Tuesday, May 11, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Andrew Pollack, NY Times:

Monsanto said yesterday that it had halted its effort to introduce the world's first genetically engineered wheat, bowing to the concerns of American farmers that the crop would endanger billions of dollars of exports.

The announcement indicates how difficult it is becoming to introduce genetic engineering into new crops beyond the four that have been genetically engineered for years - canola, corn, cotton and soybeans.

Monsanto has already largely dropped efforts to develop genetically modified potatoes and vegetables and, while it is not giving up on wheat, its efforts over the next few years will be even more focused on corn, cotton and soybeans. Genetic engineering of those crops is somewhat less controversial because they are used largely for animal feed, clothing or food oils, while wheat is more likely to be used directly in food.

"Consumer acceptance and the readiness of the commercial markets are as important as food and environmental safety for biotech crops these days," said Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology programs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group. He added, "It will be difficult to market biotech crops designed primarily for human consumption in the near future."

The wheat was genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, which would allow farmers to spray their fields to kill weeds while leaving the crop intact.

While Roundup Ready wheat attracted the expected opposition from consumer groups and environmental advocates, what was unusual in this case was the opposition of many American and Canadian farmers, who have eagerly adopted other biotechnology crops.

These farmers say that wheat buyers in Europe, Japan and some other countries had told them they would not buy genetically modified wheat because they thought consumers did not want it. Moreover, some buyers threatened not to buy any American wheat because it would be impossible to keep the modified and nonmodified wheat from intermingling.

"Farmers are not opposed to planting a genetically modified crop as long as they could find someone to buy it," said Robert Carlson, the president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, who farms near Minot, N.D. In this case he said, the overseas customers "have indicated they will not accept any genetically modified wheat."

Monsanto said in a statement yesterday that it made its decision after "extensive consultation with customers in the wheat industry." But it said another reason was that the acreage being planted in the United States and Canada with spring wheat, the type it genetically engineered, had shrunk 25 percent since 1997, reducing the potential market size.

A spokesman for Monsanto said the company had already applied for approval of Roundup Ready wheat in the United States and Canada and would not immediately withdraw the applications. The company said it might introduce the wheat, perhaps in four to eight years, when other types of genetically engineered wheat might be ready for market.

Monsanto had already delayed introduction of the wheat and - before yesterday's announcement - had been vague about when it would actually start selling it. But some people in the wheat business said they had expected it around 2006.

This is the latest retrenchment for Monsanto. A few years ago, it said it would confine its research mainly to four main crops that would provide the biggest markets: corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat. It dropped genetically modified potatoes after fast-food companies said that they would not buy them. Last year, Monsanto dropped plans to try to use genetically modified crops to produce pharmaceuticals.

Still, the acreage devoted to the existing genetically modified crops is growing, both in the United States and worldwide. Monsanto said it would work on soybeans with healthier oil and drought-tolerant corn.

Shares of Monsanto fell $1.01 yesterday, to $31.98.

Some experts said Monsanto miscalculated with wheat. It genetically engineered only spring wheat, which is grown mainly in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Montana and Western Canada. That made it hard to find widespread support. "Roundup Ready wheat was of potential direct benefit only to a relatively small number of U.S. producers, and yet the market impact was something of concern to all U.S. producers," said Alan Tracy, president of U.S. Wheat Associates, which markets American wheat abroad. Mr. Tracy said wheat exports, worth about $5 billion a year, accounted for half of the nation's crop.

While Monsanto said Roundup Ready wheat could increase yields 5 percent to 15 percent, some farmers said that weed control was not as big a problem in wheat.

In the last few months, Monsanto had stepped up pressure on wheat growers to endorse the product.

In a letter to U.S. Wheat Associates in January, Monsanto asked the growers to make "a corresponding level of commitment" to help win consumer acceptance. Monsanto argued that Roundup Ready wheat would "serve as a pathfinder for additional traits addressing disease, stress, quality or nutritional issues."

Some farmers said Monsanto would have had better success if it had started with a trait that would directly benefit consumers or food companies.

"They've got to offer the end user something so they have a reason to consider accepting it," said Louis Kuster, a farmer in Stanley, N.D.

Syngenta, a Monsanto rival, is developing genetically engineered wheat resistant to fusarium, a fungus that damages crops and produces dangerous toxins. The crop could get to market late this decade, a Syngenta spokesman said.

"Obviously there's a number of traits that growers and producers of hard red spring wheat would consider more valuable than perhaps Roundup Ready, including fusarium resistance, drought tolerance, better quality attributes and reduced allergies," said Dr. Kenneth F. Grafton, director of the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station at North Dakota State University in Fargo. It was working with Monsanto to test Roundup Ready wheat. Still, he said the Roundup Ready wheat would have helped farmers.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/11/business/worldbusiness/11wheat.html?th