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Monsanto quietly readies gene-modified wheat

(Friday, July 25, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Carey Gillam, Reuters, 07/22/03: DURBIN, North Dakota, July 22 (Reuters) - From the dusty country road, the secluded wheat field in this rural hamlet appears to be like any other, with slender stalks and ripening heads rustling in the breeze.

But the grain growing here belongs to Monsanto Co. MON.N and is key to the company's plan to bring the world its first genetically modified wheat.

It is also highly controversial. Monsanto's work in this field in southeast North Dakota, and in dozens of other fields around the U.S., comes at a time of global turmoil over whether genetically modified crops should be grown and consumed.

While soybeans and a few other crops have been genetically modified for years, wheat would be the first true food grain to go from test tube to harvest.

And as Monsanto pushes the debate to a new level of urgency by perfecting the biotech wheat, it keeps the precise locations of its wheat fields a closely guarded secret. The company last week began allowing limited visitors to the fields, but still fears a backlash from biotech opponents.

"If that information gets into the wrong hands, it isn't positive," said Monsanto wheat industry affairs leader Michael Doane.

The company's work is in the final stages now. It has already mastered the transfer of DNA from a laboratory-grown bacterium into wheat DNA, so farmers can spray weed killer across entire fields without harming their crop.

Monsanto's current focus is convincing regulators that biotech wheat is safe to grow and eat, while persuading farmers to plant it, and food companies to use it in the bread, cereals, crackers and other products.

Monsanto executives see a future filled with genetic modifications to crops. Scientists have it in their power to alter such things as protein levels, starch levels and carbohydrate counts. And crops that are more tolerant of drought and disease are also being designed.

"All of those things could be within our reach in the next decade or so," said Doane. "We now stand at a very interesting threshold. The potential is just enormous."


But while Monsanto champions biotech crops, many farmers worry that foreign countries will shun the U.S. wheat supply if some of it is scientifically altered. Experts say the loss in export business could be staggering.

Also, critics say biotech foods could hold unknown dangers for people and the environment, and they worry that turning crops into patented technologies could translate to eventual corporate control of the world's food supply.

The Bush administration's current effort to sway the European Union to accept biotech foods has thrust the issue onto the world trade front, and angered biotech opponents.

"I think biotechnology represents the worst aspects of science, not the best," said Friends of the Earth spokesman Larry Bohlen. "It is a science driven by profit rather than ethical concerns. The companies are promoting their own interests, not those of the hungry."

Protests have been mounted in North America as well as in Europe. Critics hope the uproar will derail Monsanto regulatory applications in the United States and Canada. Indeed, earlier this month, Monsanto hit a snag when the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it wanted more data to consider.

Undeterred, Monsanto executives plan meetings with farmers and U.S. millers and bakers as well as consumer marketers such as McDonald's Corp. to win them over to the new wheat.

"We recognize there are people with concerns about the wheat," said Doane, adding that it will be "a few years" before the wheat is released. "But we think a number of products that are in the pipeline will share more benefits."


Recognizing there are those who do not want biotech wheat, Monsanto is designing a "zoned" approach for grain handling to keep conventional and bioengineered strains separate. The company is also developing a test to detect mixing of biotech wheat with non-biotech grain.

And, Monsanto is allowing food industry leaders and media to access some of its biotech wheat test plots to show how little they have to fear from what the company says is only a slight modification of the workings of a wheat plant.

During a recent tour, flags marked off the boundaries of two acres of the biotech wheat, which was nearly indistinguishable from conventional wheat.

The field, one of 35 Monsanto biotech wheat sites around the country, had wide buffers around it to avoid any mixing with neighboring crops as Monsanto conducts various studies.

The exact locations remain undisclosed because of fears that activists might cause problems. Last month in Canada, activists stormed a wheat test site in Manitoba, and some biotech fields have been destroyed by opposition groups.

"There is such a struggle," said North Dakota Wheat Commission spokesman Jim Peterson, whose organization has been caught up in the debate.

"If it was up to us and it came down to a vote today whether to commercialize it or not," Peterson said, "the vote would probably be 'No.'"