U.S. wheat industry takes cautious approach to GM wheat

by Emily Wilson
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The global debate over genetically modified crops has become a high-stakes local issue in the state of North Dakota, the leading producer of hard red spring wheat in the United States. Here, Monsanto Corp. plans to introduce its biotech Round Up Ready wheat sometime between 2003 and 2005. Having seen the damage to corn exports from the Starlink debacle, state and national wheat industry leaders are adopting a cautionary approach, not wanting to jeopardize North Dakota's billion-dollar wheat crop.

In December, Monsanto filed an application with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to commercialize Round Up Ready wheat. The biotech wheat contains the same herbicide resistant gene found in Round Up Ready soybeans.

"The challenge has been to successfully insert the trait in wheat, and we have done that," said Mark Buckingham, Monsanto public affairs coordinator. The genome of wheat is more complex than that of corn or soy.

According to Buckingham, Round Up Ready (RR) wheat offers growers many benefits. "It will better control weeds, including weeds that are developing resistance to existing herbicides," he said.

Round Up Ready wheat also offers a wider window of applications. Farmers can choose when they want to apply the herbicide to weeds rather than applying at a particular time. It also may reduce the amount of herbicide needed and allow growers to avoid a pre-harvest application of Round Up for a cleaner harvest, Buckingham said.

The reaction to Monsanto's announcement from U.S. wheat export buyers, particularly in Europe and Japan, has been strongly negative. "Customers overseas have said they want non-GM wheat," said Dawn Forsythe, public affairs director at U.S. Wheat Associates, Washington, D.C.

The Japanese Flour Millers Association, which accounts for over 90% of wheat market share in Japan, sent a letter to U.S. Wheat Associates stating that they strongly doubt any milling product containing GM wheat or even conventional wheat that may contain GM wheat will be accepted in the Japanese market.

In another letter, Rank Hovis, one of the leading milling and baking groups in the United Kingdom, said that it did not want "any level" of GM grain from the United States. In addition, Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, a major importer of U.S. wheat; Algeria; and Saudi Arabia said they would not buy GM wheat.

In response to this opposition, U.S. Wheat Associates, the National Association of Wheat Growers and the Wheat Export Trade Education Committee released a Biotechnology Position Statement supporting biotechnology research, while stating that "our customers' needs and preferences are the most important consideration."

U.S. wheat millers are also concerned because many finished food products contain wheat, even more so than corn, and many are exported. "Millers are paying attention to export markets," said Betsy Faga, president of North American Millers Association. "We would like the biotech companies to figure out how biotech products can be brought to market without disrupting the marketplace."

Monsanto said it will work to address the export concerns. "We recognize there are real concerns," Buckingham said. "We have a great deal of work to do, but we hope that by 2004 and 2005 these concerns will be addressed, and if they aren't, we won't be ready for launch."

A PROPOSED MORATORIUM. Round Up Ready technology will be applied to hard red spring wheat, which is grown in North Dakota, Montana and Minnesota in the U.S. and in Canada. An estimated 13.6 million tonnes was grown last year, with nearly one-half, 6.4 million tonnes, exported overseas.

The European Union and Japan account for 40% of U.S. wheat exports. North Dakota produces an estimated 55% of the total hard red spring wheat crop each year, which is valued at an estimated U.S.$1 billion annually, a major part of the state's economy.

Losing export markets to competitors such as Canada would be "disastrous," said Todd Leake, a wheat grower from Emerado, North Dakota.

Neil Fisher, administrator with the North Dakota Wheat Commission, added, "We have a lot at stake in all respects. We don't want to lose the technologies, yet we have worked hard to get these markets."

With such high stakes, the North Dakota state legislature proposed House Bill 1338 to prohibit the sale or planting of GM wheat seeds until July 31, 2003. The bill would also create a committee comprised of key state agricultural organizations and leaders, who would have the authority to determine the right time to commercialize GM wheat. The bill was approved 68 to 29 by the state's House of Representatives.

At the time this article was published, the bill was being debated in the Senate. Ken Bertsch, North Dakota's state seed commissioner, predicts that a variation of the bill, one that sponsors aren't calling a moratorium, will pass. Similar legislation proposed in Montana was never passed.

Monsanto is opposed to the bill. "We don't believe it's necessary," Bucking- ham said. "We think it would send the wrong message to importing markets that North Dakota is not ready to adopt this innovation, which it has adopted for soy and canola."

Bertsch sees a 50/50 split among North Dakota growers who favor and oppose GM wheat. Leake is among the latter. "It (GM wheat) isn't going to fly," he said. "We must have someone who will buy it, and we don't have anyone who will."

The state seed commission has not taken a stand on whether to grow GM wheat. "We need a lot more information to make good decisions, and I don't think we are there yet," Bertsch said.

SEGREGATION SYSTEM. To gain the confidence of overseas buyers, Monsanto plans to develop a "closed loop" grain handling program to segregate GM wheat from conventional varieties. "We've committed to develop a grain handling program that will provide choice for grain consumers," Bucking-ham said.

He could give no details about the system, but said the company will develop the program this year.

U.S. Wheat Associates has asked Monsanto to form an industry advisory group consisting of everyone involved in such an identity preservation system, including farmers, grain elevators, millers, ports, and traders. "It's better that we establish this now than when commercialization is upon us," Forsythe said.

In its Biotechnology Position Statement, U.S. wheat groups say they will work with all segments of the industry to develop a viable identity preservation system and testing program prior to commercialization of GM crops.

Darrell Hanavan, chairman of the U.S. Wheat Associates and National Association of Wheat Growers biotechnology committee, is one of the advisors on the IP system. "This is an opportunity to see if we can develop a system," Hanavan said.

Cargill, ConAgra, and Farmland Industries have developed IP systems for hard white winter wheat, which Hanavan said could be a model for GM wheat. "The future of wheat production is in IP systems, regardless of biotechnology," he said.

Some have raised doubts about implementing an IP system for GM wheat. Leake, a wheat grower, said, "Elevators, millers, and exporters I've talked to don't have segregation in place and don't think it's feasible."

NAMA's Faga also expressed doubts. "The millers don't think that with the current system, the grain handlers can channel it," she said. "We aren't sure how that would be done."

One of the biggest concerns among farmers is that GM wheat will cross-pollinate conventional varieties and contaminate the entire crop, thus jeopardizing exports. This has been a problem with corn, said Bertsch, with North Dakota's seed commission.

"You can get arguments about cross-pollination," Bertsch said. He said that, for the most part, there is no cross-pollination in wheat. Leake disagrees, saying wheat is a flowering plant that puts out pollen like canola and corn. Buck-ingham said wheat is mostly self-pollinating, similar to soybeans.

To help assure farmers, who want to grow conventional, non-GM wheat, the North Dakota legislature passed a bill that would enable the seed commission to establish seed and crop genetic assurance programs for non-GM wheat. "This will offer buyers assurance that what the producer is growing is what the buyers want," Bertsch said.

The program could work for GM wheat containing desired output traits as well. The bill passed easily through the legislature, and Bertsch anticipates it becoming law by July 31.

The shadow of the Starlink corn debacle hangs over the GM wheat debate. "Farmers here saw what has happened with Starlink," Leake said. "They can easily see these problems happening with wheat."

Bertsch added, "Starlink can't help but have a negative effect. This is a lot of what's driving efforts to slow down the process of introducing GM wheat."

The success or failure of Round Up Ready wheat hinges on market acceptance, a fact that everyone agrees on. "Clearly, if U.S. farmers are not confident in their market, they won't buy our seed," said Monsanto's Buckingham.

"It comes down to what the customer wants," Faga noted.

Fisher, of North Dakota's wheat commission, agreed. "We want our customers to be satisfied," he said. "We want to go slow on this issue."