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Farmer calls Monsanto threat a bluff

by Robert Schubert
Cropchoice.com editor

(March 12, 2001 --Cropchoice news)-- Monsanto is threatening to pull the plug on its wheat research in North Dakota if the legislature approves a moratorium on transgenic wheat. One farmer regards this threat as "hollow."

Japan, Europe and the Middle East, all big U.S. wheat customers, have said they'll take their business elsewhere if Monsanto proceeds with commercialization of its transgenic Roundup Ready wheat. The biotechnology giant designed the variety to resist the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate).

For the last 10 years, the Europe Union and Japan have purchased about 45 percent of the wheat that the United States exports. They bought nearly 2.3 million of the 5.5 million tons of U.S. wheat exports in 1999-2000, according to the USDA.

Sensing the importance of those sales to North Dakota family farmers, who produce 70 percent of the country's hard red spring wheat and a majority of the durum wheat, state legislators introduced House Bill 1338. The bill would place a moratorium on the cultivation of transgenic wheat for two years. Following House approval earlier in the year, the Senate Agriculture Committee took up the matter last week.

That's when Monsanto issued its threat, one that North Dakota farmer Todd Leake dismisses.

"Their threat that they would not do research in North Dakota is hollow and ridiculous," Leake says. "What they're (Monsanto) trying to do is bluff the legislature, which is not appreciated."

The purpose of HB 1338 is not to stop research, he says, but rather to create a mechanism to judge foreign acceptance of transgenic wheat.

So far, rejection, not acceptance, abounds.

Jef Smidts of Andre & CIE Antwerp, a European importer and trader of U.S. wheat, wrote in a letter: "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."

Another letter came from Julian Watson of Rank Hovis, one of the largest EU millers. It said:

"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."

If Monsanto persists with transgenic wheat and if farmers plant it, Europe and Japan have other options. They could buy wheat from Ukraine or Kazakstan, Leake says. Australia, a major wheat producer, has sent signals that it will refrain from growing transgenic wheat.

St. Louis-based Monsanto says that passage of HB 1338, whose language is similar to the regulatory stand of the Canadian Wheat Board and wheat industry, would send a negative message about transgenics.

"That's a ridiculous assertion," Leake says. "It's a positive signal to our markets in that we are sending the message that we'll continue to be able to provide them with non-genetically modified wheat. We are listening to our customers."

The Senate Agriculture Committee (two members are sponsoring the bill) and then the full Senate will pass the moratorium legislation, Leake predicts. Gov. John Hoeven, a proponent of value-added agriculture, likely would sign it.