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Genetically Engineered Wheat Article

Grain Elevator Operators Resist Transgenic Wheat

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota, April 16, 2003

(ENS) - North Dakota grain elevator operators who responded to a new poll about the proposed introduction of Monsanto’s genetically engineered Roundup Ready wheat are overwhelmingly concerned that the new wheat will be rejected by consumers in the United States and abroad, causing a failure of confidence in U.S. grain products.

Consumers worry that genetically modified crops can cause allergic reactions, contaminate nearby fields, and prevent farmers from saving seeds from year to year. Release of genetically engineered wheat before customer acceptance "could be death to the U.S. spring wheat market," one elevator operator wrote on his survey form. The export trade equals about 45 percent of the entire market for U.S. spring wheat growers.

Monsanto petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for approval of its genetically engineered wheat variety on December 19, 2002, and has also applied for approval of the product in Canada. The new wheat is engineered to be tolerant of Monsanto's Roundup Ready herbicide applications, a trait the company says will allow increased yield and simplified weed management.

Monsanto has already received government approval for several genetically modified crop varieties, including corn and soybeans. The Minneapolis based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy sent the survey to 317 North Dakota grain elevators in March. Fifty-two elevator operators responded. The survey was conducted first in North Dakota because it is the number one state in Hard Red Spring Wheat production, and spring wheat is the first genetically engineered wheat variety slated for commercial release. The Institute is surveying elevators in other major wheat producing states, and will release those results as they are compiled.

Ninety-eight percent of North Dakota grain elevator operators responding to the survey said they were either very concerned (82 percent) or somewhat concerned (16 percent) about the proposed introduction of the Roundup Ready wheat.

In addition, 78 percent of the operators who responded to the survey supported an expanded public review of genetically engineered wheat compared to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has previously required for approval of genetically engineered crops. “The worldwide consumer must have confidence with the credibility of the U.S. farmer and government dealers, which will have no control should Monsanto be in control of wheat releases,” said one elevator operator. “Where is the demand for Roundup Ready wheat? Not one consumer group wants it!” "This survey reflects serious concern among North Dakota wheat elevator operators about the potential adverse economic impacts of genetically engineered wheat," said Dennis Olson, senior associate at the Institute. "It also shows strong support for a more comprehensive public review of genetically engineered wheat introduction than USDA has previously required for other crops.” Seventy-eight percent of the operators who responded to the survey supported an expanded public review of the new wheat.

Monsanto acknowledges that "some export markets have expressed a preference for conventional sources of wheat." The company says it is consulting the wheat industry and export customers to "develop a commercial approach for Roundup Ready wheat that facilitates choice for wheat buyers." But elevator operators said that the feasibility of creating a workable segregation system was of concern to them. “It’s impossible to have a segregation system with zero tolerance,” wrote one operator. Olson points out that major wheat importing countries prohibit or require labeling of genetically engineered crops. "Some have said that they will not buy any U.S. wheat if genetically engineered wheat is approved, because there is currently no segregation system in place to prevent GE contamination of conventional wheat."

All elevator operators responding to the survey said their customers were concerned about genetically modified (GM) wheat deregulation, with 77 percent characterizing their customers’ concern to be either very high (54 percent) or high (23 percent). Olson says that based on the time taken for USDA reviews of other genetically engineered crops the agency has authorized, Monsanto’s petition for Roundup Ready wheat could be legally approved by the 2004 spring planting season. In February, wheat growers filed a petition with the USDA arguing that the agency is legally required to conduct a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prior to approving Monsanto’s genetically engineered wheat petition.

An EIS would require a thorough analysis of the socio-economic impacts of genetically engineered wheat introduction, and provide more time for public comment, Olson said. "Those wanting a more comprehensive review of genetically engineered wheat will have to demand it of the USDA, which has been reluctant to conduct such reviews with other genetically engineered crops,” he said.

A recent economic study by Dr. Robert Wisner, professor of economics at Iowa State University, projected that the price of spring wheat could drop by about one-third if a genetically engineered variety is introduced commercially in the next two to six years. “In the past four years the U.S. has lost over a billion dollars of corn and soybean meal exports because of foreign GMO concerns," Dr. Wisner wrote, amd noted that other wheat exporting countries have ample supplies of conventional wheat for concerned buyers. Risks from the introduction of genetically engineered wheat may arise from displacement of native species by the transgenic plants.

The development of crops resistant to insect, bacterial and fungal attack may jeopardize the survival of native species, including beneficial insects. "Some scientists have raised concerns about whether the process of genetic engineering could inadvertently increase natural toxins or decrease nutrients in some foods," said "Consumer Reports" in a 1999 article. "Others fear that some people could have an allergic reaction to one or more of the new proteins in genetically engineered foods. In the mid-1990s, pre-market screening of soybeans modified with the gene of a Brazil nut caused allergic reactions among some volunteers who were allergic to Brazil nuts. The soy was not marketed after reactions were seen, but there is no mandatory screening process to guarantee that an unanticipated allergen will be detected or withheld from the market before a product is widely distributed."

Monsanto says that its Roundup Ready wheat is safe and that the wheat industry will have "an opportunity to inform customers about the safety and benefits of biotechnology" before the new wheat is available to growers. Speaking on behalf of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association, Tony Johannesen told the U.S. Senate Agricultural Committee hearing on February 13 that information for wheat customers may not be sufficient to create demand for biotech wheat.

Although the association is "not anti-GMO" and has testified in the past to its "great potential," said Johannesen, the spring wheat market is a customer driven market, and "until the customer sees value, he has much to lose and little if anything to gain with GM spring wheat." "We aren’t saying that food from genetically modified crops is dangerous," said Johannesen. "But in the market, perception is reality.

Right now the perception, whether that be wrong or right, is not in our favor on GM wheat." Foreign buyers representing nearly 50 percent of U.S. wheat exports request a declaration from the Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) that says, “There are no transgenic wheat varieties for sale or in commercial production in the United States at this time.” Johannesen said that among the countries requesting the statement are the largest importers of U.S. wheat, including Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and Italy. "What happens when FGIS can no longer issue such a declaration is not known," he said. "Many more stakeholders than seed companies have a vital interest in that. This entire state has a vital interest in that." Another state is also exercising extreme caution about the acceptance of genetically engineered wheat.

On January 27 the Montana State Senate unanimously passed a bill which says that the introduction of GM wheat and barley “must be carefully timed so that it occurs only when there is acceptance of these crops by Montana’s major customers.” Johannesen confirmed that segregation of the genetically modified wheat from the rest of the wheat stream will not take place. "We’ve heard legislators say that the grain elevators are able to segregate out most anything," Johannesen told the Senate committee. "Thanks for the confidence, but I hope everyone understands that segregating to zero tolerance is impossible."

Responding to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy survey, one elevator operator wrote, "If genetically engineered wheat is introduced I will quit handling wheat. It would be literally impossible to segregate GM wheat. I think it’s about time we hold responsible the companies developing products, which ruin our market."

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