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Experts urge farmers to listen to consumers' concerns on GMO wheat issue

(Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Shannon Burkdoll, News-Argus, 01/25/03: Farmers shouldn’t jeopardize oversea markets by raising unwanted genetically modified crops, a Nebraska consultant told 200 farmers and ranchers Thursday during the Montana Winter Fair farm forum in Lewistown.

“If U.S. farmers were to grow GMO (genetically modified organisms) wheat, US millers might import conventional wheat from Europe and elsewhere so as not to jeopardize not only their market with US consumers, but also their market for flour and wheat products that they export from the US to buyers around the world that won’t accept products made from GMO wheat,” said Nebraska resident Dan McGuire, American Corn Growers Association policy chairman. “So you see, GMO wheat has potential far-reaching market implications.

"The biggest wake-up call for farmers is the impact on wheat prices that lost markets and reduced US exports are likely to have.”

McGuire and three Montana experts addressed concerns on producing genetically engineered wheat during the Campaign to Reclaim Rural America-sponsored forum.

Defining the GMO issue

Genetically modified crops are produced by transgenesis, according to organic farmer and expert Bob Quinn of Big Sandy. In transgenesis, scientists take a specific gene of a desired characteristic from one organism or species and insert it into another, he said. “In nature, it (transgenesis) never happens,” said Quinn. “You’d never have a cross of different species. Fish would never cross with an orange plant.”

Such transgenic procedures have produced plants that develop resistance to weed invasion and insect damage, such as Roundup Ready-wheat produced by Monsanto, said agronomist Doug Ryerson of Monsanto in Great Falls.

McGuire said European wheat importers describe GMO wheat as a “market destructor,” while Asian importers share similar views. McGuire describes genetically engineered crops as a “market development in reverse,” as he said he believes it will only create more problems down the road. “I tend to think of GMO wheat as a problem in search of more problems to create,” he explained.

Wheat producers have a distinct advantage over corn and soybean farmers, said McGuire, as “world buyers have alerted you in advance and told you in no uncertain terms that they don’t want, nor will they buy, GMO (Roundup Ready) wheat if you grow it.” Foreign buyers have already refused to purchase genetically modified corn and soybeans, therefore nearly destroying the global market for those farmers who were already producing GMO crops as other nations began exporting their GMO-free crops.

Answering questions for productivity

Quinn said consumers and producers have questions that need to be answered to calm GMO fears. Questions should be asked and answered prior to introducing GMO crops into the state, Quinn told Montana farmers and ranchers.

One unanswered question is whether a market exists for GMO wheat products. Quinn said Japan, one of Montana’s largest customers, has ceased buying US wheat because it doesn’t want GMO wheat. Now other countries have a marketing advantage in promising GMO-free wheat. “They (customers) can go elsewhere,” said Quinn. “They’ve promised they’ll take their business elsewhere.”

A second question is whether GMO developers can guarantee segregation from other crops and prevent genetic drift to non-GMO crops, said Quinn. Can they prevent GMO wheat from contaminating GMO-free wheat? “The customers have told us what they’ll accept. There’s definitely no tolerance for nonfood GE crops,” he said. “There’s a very big concern that pharmaceuticals will contaminate food crops.”

Quinn is also concerned about who will pay for contamination losses, if it occurs. Ryerson said developers are paying large fines and costs in conjunction with recent contamination cases involving StarLink corn and GE soybeans. “We fully intend to implement a level of segregation,” he said. “There’s no need to be tough on the grower. Agronomy stewardship and best management practices are being developed to prevent pollen-mediated gene drift.”

Ryerson said Monsanto currently uses wide buffer zones to help prevent pollen-mediated gene drift between test plots and production wheat. “The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) mandates a 33-foot buffer between GE and any other wheat. Our test plots have 100-foot buffers and between seed wheat, we recommend having 330-foot buffers until it’s been deregulated. Deregulation follows stewardship.”

Montana State University Central Ag Research Station superintendent Dave Wichman of Moccasin said there are three research stations in Montana that refuse to test GE wheat because they are surrounded by production wheat. The Moccasin station is one of them. Wichman said Montana State University’s role in the GMO spectrum is to research the crops to determine if they are safe for Montana farmers to grow.

Producers should also question if GE wheat will be economically feasible to grow on their own operations, said Quinn. If producers have to pay more for the GE wheat seed, Quinn said they should determine if it would have higher yields, save on herbicide and insecticide costs, and produce a net gain to Montana farmers. “Is it worth risking the export market?” asked Quinn.

Moving forward with Monsanto

Monsanto doesn’t want to make any “stupid” moves with GMO crops, which is why Ryerson said Monsanto representatives are listening to customers’ complaints and producers’ concerns.

“I happen to believe in technology,” he said. “But I also believe we should proceed cautiously. I believe technology is the future, and that is why we are trying to listen. We recognize the sensitivity of the market, and we don’t want to do anything stupid.”

GMOs exist in more than agriculture products, said Ryerson. They also exist in healthcare, environmental cleanup with microorganisms, industrial processes, food applications with yeast and enzymes, and animal healthcare and marine life. “There’s been a 36-fold increase since 1996,” said Ryerson. “Sixteen countries are planting biotech crops, which is up from 13 in 2001.

“Half the world’s population lives where biotech crops are grown and they are slowly approving.”

The United States is not the only nation researching GMO crops. Europe, India, China, Egypt, Australia and Argentina have also been researching the technological advancements in crop production. “The world gets smaller as more countries invest in biotechnology,” said Ryerson.

Roundup Ready, as with other GMO crops, works to provide complete, dependable and cost-effective weed control, said Ryerson. For four years, Monsanto has been field-testing GMO wheat for benefits such as broad weed control, increased crop safety and yield, new crop mode action in cereal grains, simplified weed management, conservation versus till enhancements, cleaner grain and crop rotation flexibility.

“If you have better rotation, your economic situation might improve,” added Ryerson. “That’s what we’re doing for the short term.”

As for the long-term goals, Ryerson said GMO products could help those with Celiac disease, a disease that prevents gluten digestion, by producing gluten-free wheat products. GMO products also have advantages on nutraceutical levels, he said.

GMO wheat has several benefits, according to Ryerson. Benefits include providing more food with which to feed the world and a reduction in the need for pesticides. Food safety with pesticide use is the No. One concern global consumers have expressed, said Ryerson.

For 2003, Monsanto plans to continue dialogue to identify people willing to buy GMO products, produce more markets with the regulatory submission process that’s ongoing, expand outreach to domestic and foreign buyers, and continue to understand problems.

“I guess this really boils down to choices,” said Ryerson. “I truly believe biotechnology is the future, and I believe it’s an exciting future and we can stick our heads in the sand here in the states and that’s fine, but I think things are going to happen in other parts of the world, too. Should we proceed with caution? Absolutely. Do we have all the answers? No, but certainly, we intend to have as many of those as we can.”

Listening to the consumers

Farmers should practice better marketing and listen to their customers. “I like to say it this way, the customer is always right, even if you don’t believe they’re right for the right reasons,” said McGuire. “If those customers have alternative suppliers that are willing to meet their demands if US farmers are not willing, they can and will buy elsewhere. That is sure the case with wheat in the world market.”

McGuire compared possible GMO market complications with the Karnal bunt wheat problem, which if shipped, could cost American farmers 257 million bushels in wheat exports. Karnal bunt is caused by a fungus that affects flour quality if more than 3 percent of the grains are bunted because it producers trimethylamine, which gives a fishy odor, said McGuire.

“Pasta products made with flour contaminated with such bunt can have an unacceptable odor,” he explained. According to a USDA report, "many US trading partners will not accept US wheat exports unless the wheat is certified to be from areas where bunt is not known to occur," McGuire added.

McGuire said he believes introduction of GMO wheat to the global market would damage US markets far worse than the bunt introduction, for which USDA projects the cumulative total reduction of national farm income from 2003 to 2007 at $5.3 billion and a $2 billion increase in the cumulative marketing loan payments associated with all crops over the four-year period.

“I conclude wheat prices would drop below the USDA baseline by at least 25 cents per bushel the first year and will have fallen by at least $1.55 per bushel by the final year,” said McGuire. “I feel confident projecting serious losses from GMO wheat because I calculate that GMO corn has cost the US about half a billion bushels in lost corn exports over the past seven years and is causing corn prices this year to be $1.15 per bushel less than they otherwise would have been.”

If insistent on introducing GMO wheat, Quinn said developers should consider labeling the products for consumers and producers to make the choice if they wish to eat or purchase the products. Polls have disclosed that Europeans, Japanese and even American citizens want to be able to make the choice to purchase GMO products.

At the 2002 Montana Farm Bureau convention, 48 percent of the delegates voted in favor of labeling GMO products, and 40 percent of those who took the Millers and Bakers recent poll indicated they also support labeling GMO products. McGuire said he agreed labeling GMO products would be beneficial and provide good advertisement.

Wheat Montana currently promises its customers the flour used to make its products is GMO free “because the customers deserve it,” Quinn said chief executive officer Dean Folkvord of Three Forks told him.

“We should pay more attention to what the customers want.”

McGuire said Green Peace has been campaigning against GMO wheat in Europe, calling it “Franken Food.”

“GreenPeace is very active,” he said. “It’s an enormous hurdle for growers to clear if they can prove GMO crops do not have safety problems.”

Wichman suggested perhaps Europe is using the GMO product scare as a marketing tactic to protect its own agriculture interests. McGuire said he wouldn’t rule the theory out and suggested the US needs to be more protective of its own agriculture industry. “I wouldn’t mind being a protectionist of our own,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter if the customers reach their conclusions correctly. It matters that they have reached the conclusion and it affects whether or not they’ll buy GMO crops.”


See related story:"GMO Wheat...A market development-in-reverse program;" http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1322