E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Farmers, foreign markets send negative signals about Roundup Ready wheat

by Robert Schubert
Cropchoice.com editor

(February 2, 2001 -- Cropchoice news) -- The concerns are sprouting before Monsanto even introduces its newest batch of biotech -- Roundup Ready wheat. They range from outright rejection by foreign markets that don't want it, to contamination of conventional varieties. The Montana and North Dakota legislatures have responded with bills that, if passed, would place a moratorium on the sale and planting of genetically engineered wheat.

"As time goes on we will not necessarily be able to guarantee that conventional varieties can remain free of genetically modified material," said Todd Leake, who grows wheat on 1,300 acres in North Dakota. This could hurt farmers trying to grow conventional wheat for overseas markets that demand a product free of genetic modification.

"A lot of farmers would like to use Roundup Ready wheat because it would cut herbicide costs and be more convenient to spray on our crops and clean up fields," Leake said. "But with the increased technology fees for the seed, losing the right to propagate our own seed and having to purchase every bushel we plant, and especially losing our export markets, the tradeoffs are not in the favor of Roundup Ready wheat with a lot of growers."

However, Roundup Ready wheat won't appear on the market until sometime between 2003 and 2005, said Monsanto spokesman Mark Buckingham. The company hasn't applied yet to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approval of the product.

Still, export markets are already sending negative signals.

Tsutomu Shigota, senior managing director of the Japan Flour Millers Association, earlier this month told Dow Jones: "Under the circumstances, I strongly doubt that any bakery and noodle products made from genetically modified wheat or even conventional wheat that may contain modified wheat will be accepted in the Japanese market. World wheat supply has been abundant in recent years, and I don't see why we have to deal with modified wheat...I believe the production of modified wheat at this time will be a very risky challenge for U.S. producers."

On Jan. 5, Algeria, which imports large amounts of durum wheat from the United States, announced that it would not import any genetically modified wheat. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are taking a similar tack with respect to wheat.

Italians don't want genetically modified wheat, either. The website, www.infoexport.gc.ca, recently reported that "given the situation in Italy, with (leading farmers' group) Confagricoltura promising consumers to use only GM-free wheat, attention and effort should be directed to this subject."

To assuage these fears, which Buckingham believes are due in large part to the StarLink corn contamination incident, Monsanto is working with the wheat industry to ensure that its new product doesn't disrupt the market.

"We will not launch Roundup Ready wheat until it has full regulatory approval for food and feed use in the United States and in Japan," he said.


Some farmers are concerned that genetically modified wheat will too easily cross-pollinate with conventional varieties.

"Once the seed stocks are grown out, this accelerates the process of GM crops ending up everywhere," said Leake, who also works with the Farmers Union and the Dakota Resource Council on wheat issues.

However, setting a 4.5 to 5-foot buffer (typical for wheat) between conventional and genetically altered varieties will greatly reduce, but not eliminate, cross pollination, said Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at the University of California at Riverside. Purity, he noted, in this case equals 1 percent contamination.

Most contamination happens during seed processing, planting, harvesting and distribution of the crop, said Jane Rissler, a plant pathologist on staff at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.

At the seed processing facility, employees might accidentally mix genetically modified and conventional seeds, or incorrectly label bags.

All harvesting equipment, trucks, and silos must be kept clean when trying to segregate genetically modified and conventional wheat. This, of course, is labor and time intensive.

"A farmer to the west of me didn't clean out his planting drill between planting of Roundup Ready soybeans and conventional soy," Leake said. "In the end, the entire crop was GM (genetically modified). This was enough to qualify him for a GM discount." In this case, discount is not a plus. It means that the elevator paid the farmer less for his soybeans because they were genetically engineered.

Ground contamination also plays a role, he said. Farmers who grow a genetically modified crop one season and a conventional variety the next would have a tough time guaranteeing that no remnants of the transgenic crop remain. This phenomenon is better known as volunteer seed. It lies dormant in the soil and then sprouts the next spring.

Canada's experience with canola further illustrates the nightmare of biotech crop contamination. Farmers first planted Roundup Ready canola in western Canada in 1995. Five years later, more than half of the crop was considered genetically modified because of cross pollination and segregation problems. Farmers lost money when they couldn't export their canola to many parts of the world.

In an interview last summer, an Aventis official said, "the entire Canadian canola crop has to be considered genetically modified for export purposes." Aventis held the license to market Roundup Ready canola in Canada.

In response to concerns that genetically modified wheat will contaminate conventional varieties, Buckingham said that Monsanto is committed to working with the National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates to develop a grain handling system that will reliably deliver what customers want. They haven't yet begun working on this system, though.

Based on his conversations with farmers, elevator managers and grain company executives, Leake doubts they'll be able to address the segregation technology and infrastructure requirements necessary to handle Roundup Ready wheat.

Just in case Monsanto's system isn't working, legislation is pending in the Montana and North Dakota legislatures.

A bill in the Montana State House of Representatives would place a moratorium on the production of genetically modified wheat. HB 211 reads as follows:

"1. Moratorium on production of genetically modified wheat.
(1) Genetically modified organisms may pose risks of unknown dimensions to Montana's economy, native environment, and agricultural industry. The planting of genetically modified crops over the past several years has outpaced our understanding of the immediate and long-term economic and environmental effects of genetically modified organisms. Because of these concerns, the legislature finds it appropriate to impose a moratorium on the production of genetically modified wheat.
(2) A person may not plant genetically modified wheat in Montana.
NEW SECTION. Section 2. Termination. [This act] terminates October 1, 2003."

Meanwhile, in North Dakota, legislators are considering a prohibition on the sale of genetically modified wheat seed until Aug. 1, 2003.

Leake thinks these measures are the least that government can do to help resolve the liability, segregation, technology agreement and market acceptance issues that likely will happen with biotech wheat just as they did with corn, soy and canola.

"As far as the chances for passage," Leake said, "we have a lot of support in North Dakota and Montana for this, but moratoriums are notoriously difficult to get enacted, and legislators are sometimes hesitant."

Readers may have noted that both of these moratoriums terminate before Monsanto introduces Roundup Ready wheat sometime between 2003 and 2005.

Leake said that the existing legislation, if passed, would cover the 2003 planting season. The incoming legislatures would have to decide whether to reauthorize the moratoriums. Leake thinks they would do so unless a resolution is reached on such issues as foreign market acceptance of Roundup Ready wheat and segregation, among others.