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Monsanto bends over RoundUp Ready wheat

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Tuesday, May 18, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Farmers from Minot to Meadow Lake breathed a sigh of relief last week as Monsanto announced it will discontinue efforts to introduce Roundup Ready wheat in North America. The seed and chemical giant bowed to pressure from a wide range of farm groups. These have been reacting to growing opposition from wheat buyers and consumers.

Monsanto had applied to register Roundup Ready wheat in both Canada and the U.S., but has come under ever-increasing fire. In Canada, many farm groups, including the Canadian Wheat Board, vigorously objected to the registration process itself. They cited the need to take into account the market impacts Roundup Ready wheat would have, in addition to the environmental and agronomic factors that are routinely assessed.

The Canadian government appeared to be bending slightly to pressure against Monsanto's product. This same government a few years ago had removed the requirement to look at market impacts from the registration process. It recently bleated about returning to the former position.

The CWB played a strong role in the opposition, indicating that nearly nine-tenths of its customers would not buy Canadian wheat if Roundup Ready wheat were produced in Canada. The situation was somewhat different in the U.S. where ADM was alone among major grain companies in recognizing the grave problems the release of Roundup Ready wheat would cause. This is likely why Monsanto approached the American wheat industry with a request for support for introducing Roundup Ready wheat in the U.S. first. Monsanto had previously stated it would only release if it could do so in both countries simultaneously. American wheat growers were less than enthused at the prospect.

Some supporters of the biotech industry had forecast a chill on wheat research if Monsanto bowed to the pressure. In truth, though, wheat research in Canada and the U.S. relies little on techniques of genetic engineering. Nor was Monsanto overly involved in wheat research. According to the company, it spent less than $5 million in 2004 on wheat research, or less than one percent of its $500 million research budget.

Contrast this with the budget of the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, a producer organization that is but a tiny speck when compared to the world-wide stature of Monsanto. The SPG will spend over $2.5 million in research and development to support the pulse industry in Saskatchewan in 2004.

Monsanto's efforts in wheat research in the past have focused largely on transferring Roundup resistance into existing wheat varieties. Monsanto's pattern is to take varieties developed with public money (as are virtually all important wheat varieties in Canada) and insert the Roundup Ready gene into them. Having done so, Monsanto is able to claim ownership of the entire amended variety and its offspring.

While the various sides argue the good and bad about Monsanto's announcement, the issue for Roundup Ready wheat is rather simple. Not only do customers not want it, but farmers do not need it. Weed control systems in wheat are as well developed as the crop itself. When farmers look at the technology fee charged by Monsanto, and the requirement to buy new seed each year, they quickly realize that the benefits of Roundup resistance are minimal to wheat growers. They certainly are not enough to overcome the huge disbenefit of losing your best customers to countries wise enough to not to succumb to Monsanto's pressure.

As many commentators have pointed out, acceptance of genetically modified food crops has had little success of late. GM flax, potatoes and tomatoes have all been pulled from the market due to customer resistance and farmers' pressure. Monsanto has pulled the plug on GM canola in Australia, as one state after another banned it. In Britain, Bayer Crop Science gave up attempts to commercialize GM maize. This is not to say that research in GM crops will stop, but until that research actually yields something of unique value to farmers, they are not likely to support such efforts.

Also on the biotech front, the Supreme Court of Canada will release its decision on the Monsanto vs. Percy Schmeiser case on May 21. Mark your calendars. This decision will be watched around the world.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax