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July 10, a big day for biotech wheat in North Dakota

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(July 3, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- Genetically modified wheat may be the most contentious issue facing the North Dakota Interim Agriculture Committee at its July 10 meeting. Skeptics, including a state Senate candidate, see the economic risks of allowing biotech wheat as too great. Others say that trying to slow it would isolate the state and create enforcement nightmares.

Todd Leake, who farms in eastern North Dakota, will ask the senators and representatives on the committee to draft legislation establishing a moratorium on transgenic wheat, including and especially the Roundup Ready variety. * Monsanto engineered it to resist the herbicide Roundup (active ingredient: glyphosate), and wants to commercialize it sometime between 2003 and 2005.

Biotech wheat opponents, including farmers, processors and marketers, base their position largely on the potential negative economic impacts. The major buyers of U.S. wheat -- the European Union, Japan and other Asian countries, and the Middle East -- have said they'll reject any wheat containing genetically modified organisms.

The United States provides 24 percent of the wheat that is traded in the world, says Dawn Forsythe, director of public affairs for U.S. Wheat Associates, the non-profit organization that promotes exports of the grain.

This year, Japan and the European Union were the number one and two buyers of hard red spring wheat, a variety that North Dakota farmers grow widely. Shipments to Japan were 1.3 million metric tons, up 100,000 tons from last year. Although sales to the European Union declined from 998,000 to 889,000 metric tons, overall wheat exports to the EU increased by 50 percent, Forsythe says.

Moratorium revisited

This isn't the first time for the idea of a moratorium on transgenic wheat in the state. During the 2001 session of the Legislative Assembly, bill number 1338 emerged from the House Agriculture Committee by a vote of 14 - 0 and then made it through the full House. It would have imposed a two-year halt on the sale of transgenic wheat seeds and created a certification board to decide whether to authorize the sale and sowing of such seeds after the moratorium's expiration.

The bill's fortunes changed in the Senate, however. Terry Wanzek, chairman of the chamber's Agriculture Committee, successfully led the charge to make HB 1338 into a study of the environmental, health and market effects of biotech wheat.

Sen. Wanzek, who also chairs the Interim Agriculture Committee, continues to oppose the idea of a moratorium for various reasons. It would give the impression that the state is backward and averse to new technology and deprive farmers of the right to gauge the market and decide whether to grow bioengineered wheat.

To farmers, Wanzek says: "If your customers don't want genetically modified wheat, why would you grow it? I don't grow Roundup Ready soybeans. The answer is segregation and allowing farmers who want to grow for [GM wheat markets] to do it. I don't have all the answers for segregation. I'm not an expert in that area. Officials at the state and national levels are working on it."

"I think the market concerns are legitimate, but I believe addressing it should be a broader effort than North Dakota," Wanzek says. "If a moratorium is deemed to be necessary, it should be a federal effort."

This stance solidified the decision of April Fairfield to challenge Wanzek for his Senate seat in the November election.

"It's very discouraging to me to hear the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee saying that North Dakota does not have a stake in protecting a vital economic enterprise in the state. It's 40 percent of our economic base," says Fairfield, a public policy analyst with the North Dakota Farmers Union and a representative from the same district as Wanzek.

"A moratorium is not a prohibition," says Fairfield, wondering whether he has confused the terms. "The point is a go-slow approach. Let's wait until we know better what the impacts are going to be."

At the last meeting of the interim committee in March, she says, Monsanto executive Michael Doane testified that the company understood the concerns about biotech and would do nothing to jeopardize wheat sales.

Her question to him: "Then why would you not allow us to take a go-slow approach on our terms, not on Monsanto's?"

The response, she says, was basically, "Trust us."

"Frankly, I don't trust Monsanto to make those decisions on behalf of our farmers and ranchers," she says.

Wanzek respects the economic and market concerns, but cautions against overblowing them.

"Our wheat exports are down and we don't even have Roundup Ready wheat yet," he points out. He believes that, to a certain degree, the Europeans use biotech food issues to negotiate lower prices and better trade terms. "To their concerns, I have three words: 'Mad Cow Disease.' Our record is not perfect, but we do have regulatory agencies that oversee food safety and the release of these new technologies."

There are a number of reasons for the 6 percent decline in wheat exports, says Dawn Forsythe of U.S. Wheat Associates. Those are:

  • Fewer supplies of certain wheat classes;
  • a stronger dollar (over the course of the marketing year that ended on May 31);
  • cheaper wheat from non-traditional suppliers, such as India, China, Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union;
  • and government policies that discourage exports, such as banning the Cuban buyer from the country and including Iran among President's Bush's "Axis of Evil" when, for the first time in decades, Iranian buyers were negotiating a sale.

"In view of these market obstacles, one could argue that we do not need another one piled on at this time," says Forsythe, with regard to the potential economic pitfalls of genetically modified wheat. "We are in a strategic battle with Australia for emerging markets in Asia. The countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are in a good position to supply Europe with wheat."

On that note, U.S. Wheat Associates has invited European millers to its board meeting in mid-July to explain exactly what they mean by saying they won't buy transgenic wheat, she says.

If the sentiments from last year are any judge, then the board is in for an earful.

  • Jef Smidts of Andre & CIE Antwerp, a European importer and trader of U.S. wheat, wrote: "We are absolutely convinced that the European miller will abandon GMO (genetically modified organism) hard red spring wheat...GMO wheat for sure will be a market destructor."
  • Julian Watson of Rank Hovis, one of the largest EU millers, penned: "So that you are completely clear on Rank Hovis's policy toward GM wheat. We do not want any level of such grain in our supplies from you. To date, we have been able to say to our customers that GM wheat has not yet been brought to the market. This now needs to be backed up with preventative actions.

    Please advise us of what steps you have taken to ensure that GM wheat is prevented from entering or commingling with wheat in the entire spring wheat supply chain.

    You should treat this issue with the utmost gravity and priority given that the alarm generated by even the perception that spring wheat may contain GM traits, could be enough to jeopardize the entire export programme to the EU."

For Forsythe, it comes down to markets.

"I'm so tired of people saying that if you're concerned about the market, you must be anti-biotech or a Luddite," she says. "If somebody developed a blue wheat and it was a nice little wheat, but customers around the world said, 'we don't want blue noodles or blue bread,' we wouldn't grow it because we don't have a market. It's a market issue, it's not a biotech issue."

*Any bills the Interim Agriculture Committee writes must be submitted to the Legislative Assembly for consideration. Its next regular session begins in January 2003.