The Heartland Wrestles With Biotechnology
By Justin Gillis Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2003; Page A01
MANNING, N.D. -- In a bar in this hamlet on the great American
prairie, some wheat farmers gathered one night not long ago. They
drove for miles through blowing snow, and more than 50 of them packed
the Little Knife Saloon, doubling the regular population of Manning.
They came to ask questions about a new kind of wheat, and the more
they heard from a panel skeptical of the crop, the more their brows
knitted in worry.
The wheat was created in a St. Louis biology laboratory, through
genetic engineering. It is meant to benefit farmers, but a lot of
people in the room fretted that it would put them out of business.
"Nobody has really found out if this stuff is safe," declared Steven
Pollestad, who drove 30 miles from his family farm near Halliday
and stood at the back, thumbs hitched in his jeans. "The foreign
buyers have flat out said they won't buy it. And I believe they
In the states that grow the fabled amber waves of grain that symbolize
America's heritage of plenty, the most plentiful commodity these
days is trouble. For the first time in its decade-long push to win
acceptance of genetically altered crops, Monsanto Co. of St. Louis
faces significant opposition from farmers. Across the northern Great
Plains and neighboring Canada, skepticism toward a forthcoming Monsanto
product, called Roundup Ready wheat, has solidified into a political
movement. Some farmers are so worried they want their state governments
to wrest authority from federal regulators and adopt formal moratoriums
on the crop.
The opposition, based largely on fear that foreign buyers will
reject gene- altered wheat, potentially costing American and Canadian
farmers vital markets, has only a few symbolic victories and several
substantive defeats to show in statehouses and provincial legislatures
so far. The critical decisions on whether to approve it still rest
with regulators in Washington and Ottawa. But already, candidates
have won elections by emphasizing their opposition to biotech wheat.
And, facing a revolt not only from farmers but from a wary American
food industry, Monsanto has been forced into a tactical retreat,
stretching its timetable and issuing a long list of promises about
how it would commercialize the product. "We're pursuing a very diligent
path of dialogue," said Michael Doane, Monsanto's director of industry
affairs. "Over time, it has affected our strategic approach." Unlike
wheat, soybeans aren't primarily a human food crop. After the oil
is squeezed out, most soybean meal is fed to animals.
By no means does the opposition movement command unanimous allegiance
in farm country -- the issue has split farmers, farm organizations
and legislatures in at least four states and two Canadian provinces,
with the pro-biotech side plausibly claiming majority support among
farmers in most of those places. But the strength of the opposition
has provoked a rollicking debate. Roundup Ready wheat is emerging
as a key test of whether the biotechnology industry can take charge
of the destiny of a major crop used primarily as food, something
it has yet to accomplish despite successes in other crops.
And the fight is becoming a prime symbol in another way, too. As
genetic science creates opportunities to manipulate the plants and
animals people eat, associated battles are migrating out of Washington.
In the next few years, state and even local governments will confront
new kinds of crops, as well as gene-altered animals and even a genetically
engineered salmon. Some of these products require state permits
before they can be commercialized, and many state and local governments
will hear demands to keep them out.
The new biology, in other words, is coming soon to state legislatures
and county commissions across the land. The change is already evident
in North Dakota and neighboring states, where legislators and some
ordinary citizens now speak knowledgeably about such matters as
genetic drift and pollen flow.
The movement has fed on the deep suspicion of corporate ethics
sparked by recent scandals. Pollestad, that Halliday farmer, captured
the mood in a letter to the editor of the Grand Forks Herald. He
noted that Monsanto was continuing to press for quick federal approval
of its wheat despite its go-slow promises, and he called on North
Dakota lawmakers to give citizens a voice in the decision. "Or,
we could let Monsanto decide," he wrote. "And maybe we also could
get Enron to run our utilities and Arthur Andersen to keep the books."
Recouping an Investment The crop technology that many companies,
led by Monsanto, are pushing to develop these days is an outgrowth
of the vast genetic knowledge pouring from the world's research
laboratories. Scientists are becoming increasingly adept at manipulating
plants and animals in a way nature does not, moving genes across
species to confer new traits.
Most research suggests such organisms are safe to eat, but a host
of theoretical questions remain about the environmental risks, such
as the possibility of creating new types of weeds or pests. That
concern, plus lingering uncertainty about health effects, has led
to a broad opposition movement, particularly in Europe and Japan.
In the long run, the technology offers potential benefits consumers
may want, such as foods to cut the risk of heart disease or cancer.
But the crops that have come to market first are primarily designed
to benefit farmers by giving them greater control over weeds and
Monsanto has been in the vanguard, developing varieties of corn,
soybeans and cotton that resist worms and other insects. The company's
biggest success, though, has been with crops designed to exploit
another of its products, an herbicide called Roundup. This popular
chemical kills weeds efficiently, does no harm to people or animals
and readily breaks down in the environment. But Roundup kills conventional
crops as well as weeds, so farmers mostly used it to prepare their
fields for planting. Monsanto scientists set out in the 1980s, using
genetic engineering, to develop crops resistant to Roundup. "Roundup
Ready" crops have proven wildly popular, saving farmers labor.
Monsanto competitors brought similar products to market. Not long
after the crops were commercialized in the United States, in the
late 1990s, a European backlash began, featuring "Frankenfood" headlines
and warnings about manipulating nature. American farmers lost corn
sales to Europe, but growing demand in other markets took up the
slack. Neither corn nor soybeans is primarily a human food crop
– corn is largely fed to farm animals, and after the oil is squeezed
out, so is most soybean meal. Cotton, of course, is used to make
cloth. Despite these successes, Monsanto has yet to recoup its huge
investment in biotechnology, so the company needs new products.
It is trying to conquer the fundamental cereal of Western diets
-- wheat. On past experience, the company counted on ready farmer
acceptance. But wheat farmers are highly dependent on foreign markets,
particularly Japan, and follow them assiduously.
And wheat, as it happens, is grown in a part of North America with
a long tradition of political activism among farmers, who battled
banks and grain monopolies early in the 20th century, a populist
tradition that persists. Moreover, the people who run Monsanto had
never met Tom and Gail Wiley. Money-Minded Opposition The Wileys
are wheat, soybean and cattle farmers who live on a windswept farmstead
at the end of a long gravel road in southeastern North Dakota.
They met in Berkeley, Calif., many years ago, and Tom Wiley confesses
to some counterculture dabbling in his youth. But the Wileys are
conventional, not organic, farmers, and have been more or less comfortable
using pesticides and other aspects of modern farm technology since
they began working Tom Wiley's family homestead in the 1970s. In
the late 1990s, events unrelated to the biotechnology industry politicized
the Wileys. The federal government promulgated a crop insurance
program and then changed the payout rules after farmers had already
bought their policies, a bait-and-switch that infuriated the Wileys.
They led a farmer coalition that sued the government, won, and eventually
got an act of Congress passed to correct the problem. As that battle
was winding down, the Wileys began hearing about Roundup Ready wheat.
They'd already had one bad experience with biotech crops - some
high-grade soybeans they grew to make tofu somehow got adulterated
with a small amount of Roundup Ready soybeans, probably from a neighbor's
field, and buyers overseas balked. What would happen, the Wileys
wondered, if Monsanto commercialized Roundup Ready wheat and foreign
buyers suddenly grew skittish about the American crop amid fears
of adulteration? They talked to other farmers. Even if falling prices
led growers to abandon the Monsanto product, the reputation and
marketability of U.S. wheat might be permanently damaged, the farmers
reasoned. A political movement was born. At lightning speed, it
won a huge victory when the lower house of North Dakota's Legislative
Assembly passed a moratorium in 2001 on Roundup Ready wheat.
Shocked, Monsanto and pro- biotech farm groups descended with lobbyists,
and the state Senate turned the moratorium into a mere study. But
when the company and farm groups began surveying major buyers of
wheat, they found strong resistance to the biotech crop, especially
overseas. Sitting in their farm kitchen not long ago, the Wileys
recalled their surprise as they built alliances with environmental
outfits like Greenpeace that have traditionally taken a dim view
of conventional farming. "I think all my life I've been an environmentalist,"
Gail Wiley said, her voice dropping as she added, "even though you
don't say that too loudly around here." If environmental factors
influenced the Wileys' thinking, other people in North Dakota looked
at the issue in strictly dollars-and-cents terms, and came out equally
opposed to Roundup Ready wheat on the grounds the marketplace just
was not ready for it.
As the rebellion grew, Monsanto bowed to political reality, pledging
a slew of steps that the company contends will protect existing
markets. Meeting all the milestones will effectively delay Roundup
Ready wheat to 2005, if not later. Assuming Monsanto keeps its word,
the farmers have gained a two- year moratorium without having to
pass one into law. Doane, the Monsanto industry-affairs officer,
has plied North Dakota on the company's behalf. At his suggestion,
a group of skeptical farmers, not including the Wileys, boarded
a Monsanto plane in December and flew to St. Louis to talk to company
The discussion was mostly calm, but Louis Kuster, a grower from
Stanley, N.D., and a member of a state commission that promotes
wheat sales, said he took offense when a company executive, Robb
Fraley, seemed to imply that farmers opposing Monsanto might be
advancing the agenda of radical environmental groups. "At that point
I countered, and I did raise my voice a little bit and I was a little
bit angry, and I looked right straight at him and he was only about
five feet away from me, and I said, 'You're not talking to the Greens
here today,' " Kuster recalled. " 'We're money people. We need to
make money, too.' " 'Who Can You Trust?'
Gripping the wheel of his pickup truck on a chilly North Dakota
morning, an affable man named Terry Wanzek pointed with pride to
the several thousand acres of fields that make up his family farm.
Wanzek, squarely in the pro-biotech camp, acknowledged that the
market risks cited by opponents are real. But as he showed off his
farm's spotless grain-handling system, he declared the problems
manageable. Besides, Wanzek said, what kind of message would it
send to a biotech industry investing billions in new technology
if the very customers the companies are trying to benefit, farmers,
respond by kicking them in he teeth? People on Wanzek's side of
the issue generally take the view that Monsanto's go-slow promises
can be believed, and they also take seriously a decade of rulings
from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration,
and the U.S. Department of Agriculture declaring biotech crops safe.
"If you can't trust EPA and you can't trust FDA and you can't trust
USDA," Wanzek said as his truck crunched its way down gravel roads,
"who can you trust?" This is Monsanto's position, too -- that federal
regulators will make the right decisions.
But the company has been forced to acknowledge that, whatever Washington
and Ottawa decide, the risk of overseas rejection is real. Monsanto
has lately papered the Great Plains states with brochures outlining
how it will proceed. For starters, the company said it will wait
until the United States, Canada (the nation's largest competitor
in selling wheat) and Japan (its largest customer, most years) approve
the crop. And the company said it will help institute "appropriate
grain handling protocols" to keep biotech wheat separate from regular
wheat. Monsanto acknowledges that total separation of the crops
in fields, combines and grain bins is impossible but argues that
adequate separation can be achieved.
Doane, the industry-affairs director, said Monsanto will honor
those commitments. "We've put it in black and white," he said. But
distrust of Monsanto runs deep enough in the Great Plains that politicians
who support the company can pay a price. Wanzek isn't just any farmer
-- he was, until recently, the Republican chairman of the Senate
agriculture committee in North Dakota's citizen- legislature. His
committee was largely responsible for killing the biotech- wheat
moratorium in the last legislative session.
He was defeated by a Democrat last November in a campaign in which
his support for biotech crops became a major issue. "The wheat deal,
I think, did cost me some votes," he said. Wanzek's opponent, April
Fairfield, was one of at least three legislative candidates to use
opposition to Roundup Ready wheat as a signature campaign issue.
All won. Fairfield has failed so far to win a moratorium. Lawmakers
also turned down a related measure to shift legal liability to companies
like Monsanto if their crops taint nearby farms. Similar legislation
has stalled in Montana, South Dakota and other states where wheat
revolts are underway.
Republicans, many of whom initially supported the North Dakota
moratorium, have closed ranks to defend the technology, largely
because of Monsanto's promises. Passions remain high. As Fairfield
described her winning campaign and her losing attempts at lawmaking,
in an interview in the basement cafeteria of the North Dakota Legislative
Assembly in Bismarck, a fellow named Lance Hagen, executive director
of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, ambled by. "Biotech
or bust, baby!" he declared. "That's our motto." Unlikely Allies
Past midnight on a summer's evening three years ago, Larry Bohlen
walked out of a Safeway supermarket in Silver Spring toting $66.32
worth of taco shells and other corn products. By the time Bohlen,
director of health and environment programs at Friends of the Earth,
and his allies in the environmental movement were done having the
corn products tested for adulteration, they had forced American
food and biotech companies into a recall costing hundreds of millions
A biotech corn called StarLink, meant only for animal consumption,
had made its way into the human food supply through sloppy grain
handling. The incident foreshadowed another mishap last year, in
which corn genetically engineered to grow a pig vaccine nearly made
its way into food. The problems have made large American food companies
exceedingly nervous about biotechnology.
More than half their products in the United States contain biotech
ingredients, particularly lecithin or protein made from Roundup
Ready soybeans, and they live in fear that some contamination incident
will provoke a U.S. consumer backlash. "Right now, public acceptance
of biotechnology in America is relatively high," Betsy D. Holden,
co-chief executive of Kraft Foods Inc., said in a recent speech
in Arlington. "But how many more times can we test the public's
trust before we begin to lose it?" The food industry has been publicly
skeptical of Roundup Ready wheat. Behind closed doors, according
to three people privy to the discussions, the industry has been
far blunter with Monsanto and its biotech allies. "Don't want it.
Don't need it," one person said the message has been. The food companies
have been killing smaller biotech crops like potatoes and sugar
beets for several years.
Knowledgeable people say the food companies have essentially told
Monsanto they will try to kill Roundup Ready wheat if the company
moves forward, asking suppliers to accept only conventional wheat.
At the same time, the food companies are under political pressure
from biotech supporters on Capitol Hill not to come out publicly
against gene- altered crops. That makes for a volatile situation
where it is hard to predict exactly what the food companies will
do until the wheat is approved.. Out on the Great Plains, farmers
skeptical of the crop are hoping the food companies come down as
allies, but they are not counting on it. Their efforts stalled in
state legislatures, the farmers recently petitioned the Agriculture
Department for a full environmental and economic assessment of Roundup
Ready wheat before the government grants approval.
Some farmers acknowledge that Monsanto will probably win approval
eventually but say they're looking for any stalling tactic they
can find. "I feel that we have accomplished something, in that it's
slowing up the process so that more thought can go into it," said
Kuster, the farmer from Stanley, N.D. "The slower it goes, the more
chance it has of getting done right."