Modified wheat looms as increasing certainty

by Morton Sosland
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By Morton Sosland

Nearly overlooked in the highly contentious debate over the acceptability of genetically-modified crops was the major step that the primary commercial advocate of biotechnology took toward gaining approval for modified wheat. As it had promised a year ago in setting forth its plans for gaining approval of such wheat, Monsanto Co. made regulatory submissions to government agencies in the United States and Canada asking approval of biotechnology-derived wheat as safe for both production and for human consumption. This move was not required at this stage of the development of wheat resistant to Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready herbicide. Yet, it is seen as an essential step in the lengthy process the company has committed to before introducing its wheat for commercial production.

Of great importance is Monsanto’s desire to handle the introduction of wheat more carefully than perhaps was done with the crops that have been planted for years in genetically-modified form — corn, soybeans, cotton and rapeseed. While these crops gain expanding acceptance around the world, their success has done almost nothing to overcome the hue and cry raised by the enemies of genetic modification. Indeed, this success only serves to fan the flames of the opponents that range from governments of countries in Europe, Asia and Africa to organizations like Greenpeace.

It is obviously Monsanto’s hope that its applications to agencies in the United States and Canada will lend further credibility to its application of biotechnology to wheat. Evaluations will examine the new wheat from many different perspectives, focusing particularly on how it may override native species, whether its resistance to the herbicide may cause the spread of plant diseases, and whether it may have an adverse effect on animals. But even after the official answers are obtained — and Monsanto is confident of a positive response — it has declared it will not introduce the new wheat until a grain marketing system is in place that will assure millers, bakers and other food manufacturers will be able to decide whether or not they want to include genetically-modified wheat in flour, bread and other wheat-based products.

And while a great amount of study has gone into the processes and systems of marketing that will be necessary to assure segregation, having a system in place is a long way into the future.

It was total coincidence that Monsanto’s formal applications to the two governments came almost in the same week as Robert Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, asked the World Trade Organization to declare against the European Union’s continuing ban on genetically-modified crops. Zoellick particularly targeted "European anti-scientific policies as spreading to other corners of the world." Here he was charging the E.U. with causing the leaders of nations in urgent need of food assistance to refuse to allow imports of GM corn from the U.S. While no definite U.S. action had been taken before the W.T.O. at press time, the E.U.’s leaders dismissed the American position as neither helpful nor productive. The E.U. answer to consumer concerns is a strict regimen of food labeling that many consider only a trifle less damaging than the ban.

Even as biotechnology continues to occupy center stage in world trade in grain, the acceptance of these modified crops is accelerating. Land devoted to growing genetically-modified crops increased 12% in 2002, reaching nearly 59 million hectares and accounting for a fifth of the global crop area devoted to soybeans, corn, cotton and rape. Acceptance has been particularly strong in the developing nations, and these crops now are grown in countries accounting for more than half of the world’s population. Even as acceptance mounts, wheat cannot be far behind. Thus, it is essential that grain merchants, grain processors and food manufacturers in developed and developing nations quickly come to terms with how they are going to do business amidst what is a fast-approaching reality.