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USDA mulls strict rules for Monsanto biotech wheat

(Sunday, March 16, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Randy Fabi, Reuters, 03/15/03: WASHINGTON - The U.S. Agriculture Department said on Saturday it may impose strict requirements on Monsanto Co to ensure it was abiding by its pledge not to sell biotech wheat until foreign markets accepted it.

Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" wheat, which would be the first genetically modified wheat in the world, is under review by the U.S. and Canadian governments and could be approved for commercialization within the next two years.

Critics have said consumer attitudes about genetically modified wheat are so negative that both domestic and foreign buyers are likely to shun all U.S. wheat if it is sold.

Even if the wheat is approved by the United States, Monsanto has promised not to sell it until at least Canada and Japan accept it. The St. Louis-based company said a secure segregation system must also be in place to ensure the separation of genetically modified and traditional wheat.

"We understand this is a sensitive issue and we will get the approvals before we market any of these products," Monsanto wheat expert Michael Doane told a biotech advisory committee that advises the National Association of Wheat Growers, U.S. Wheat Associates and Wheat Export Trade Education Committee.

The new Monsanto wheat has been engineered to withstand herbicide so weed control is easier for farmers. The United States is the world's largest producer of biotech crops. Corn and soybeans are its biggest sellers.

The USDA said Monsanto may have to meet certain requirements if and when the government approves the product.

U.S. wheat exporters currently sell their wheat to foreign markets with a USDA-approved statement saying no biotech wheat is commercialized in the United States.

"If we are going to continue to issue a statement, we need assurances that statement is correct," said David Shipman, deputy administrator for the USDA's Federal Grain Inspection Service.

USDA is considering a proposal to require that Monsanto submit to independent audits "from the top all the way down" to ensure no biotech wheat was being sold, Shipman said.

The company would also have to sign a statement before every marketing year that it would not commercialize the genetically modified wheat. And Monsanto would need to provide information so DNA testing could be conducted by USDA.

Monsanto could face felony charges if it knowingly violates any of these proposals, Shipman said. Monsanto said it was too early to comment on USDA's proposal.

Monsanto field-tested Roundup Ready wheat on 35 acres (14.16 hectares) in the United States last spring. Doane said it would plant some this year in Montana, North Dakota, and perhaps Idaho.

Growers and environmental groups last week filed a petition with the USDA demanding a moratorium on the Monsanto wheat.

Editor's note: Michael Doane, head of wheat industry affairs for Monsanto, said the company will officially ask the government of Japan for permission to sell its Roundup Ready wheat there, according to Dow Jones.