Wheat Retreat

Monsanto admits the market isn't ready for genetically modified wheat. Will it ever be?

| Wed May 12, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Opponents of genetically modified food claimed a big win this week with the announcement by biotech giant Monsanto that the company was shelving plans to bring GM wheat to market. Although modified maize, cotton, and soya are widely cultivated and commonly used in oils and animal feed, GM wheat, because it is meant directly for human consumption (in bread, say), is a much tougher sell. Although there is no definitive scientific proof that GM wheat is harmful, little is known of its long-term effects, whether on the environment or humans, and consumers aren't ready to accept it in their food.

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Greenpeace GM expert Ben Ayliffe told Reuters:

"This is great news for the environment, for farmers and consumers [and] a significant setback for GM. It is fantastic news because this was Monsanto's big flagship product. It was the product that they thought was going to finally break the consumer rejection of GM."

The company said in a statement that commercial development of its Roundup Ready spring wheat, named for the company's Roundup herbicide (which it's designed to resist) would be deferred so the company could concentrate on research into GM corn, cotton and oilseeds. Monsanto argues that by using Roundup herbicide together with transgenic wheat, farmers can boost their crop yields by 5 to 15 percent.

Monsanto isn't the only company working on GM wheat -- there are about three dozen different projects currently active -- but the company was the first to seek regulatory approval.

Monsanto blames a 25 percent drop in demand for wheat for the reversal, and plans to continue research on wheat to introduce other traits such as resistance to drought or cold. But these will take four to eight years to come through.

Tony Combes, director of corporate affairs at Monsanto UK, told New Scientist magazine: "The research is definitely not stopping. It's not carrying on at field level, but we're leaving the door open."

More than a drop in demand, though, consumer opposition, particularly in Europe and Japan, drove Monsanto's reversal on wheat. Many farmers in the U.S. are afraid of losing their wheat exports. In 1999-2000, around half of the 5.5 million tons of U.S. wheat exports went to Europe and Japan.

"Farmers are not opposed to planting a genetically modified crop as long as they could find someone to buy it," said Robert Carlson, the president of the North Dakota Farmers Union.

In North Dakota, where the debate over GM wheat is particularly intense, farmers and farm organizations are divided over the product's potential. The argument was even taken up in the state legislature where the House of Representatives passed a moratorium on biotech wheat that was then nixed by the state senate.

The Bismarck Tribune argues that farmers are right to defer to consumers on this one:

"In any case, North Dakota must pay attention because we are the No. 1 producer of hard red spring wheat and because Canada, which apparently will not grow GM, stands ready to scoop up our markets. That's enough to make you pay attention to the customer, who is always the boss, even when he isn't right."

Although genetically engineered corn and soybeans are widely used, featuring in thousands of processed foods, from salad dressing to ice cream. More than 85 percent of the soy in the U.S. is genetically engineered. So is nearly half the corn, and three-quarters of the cotton.

Those crops are processed into oils, syrups and thickeners used as ingredients in an estimated 80 percent of processed food: from margarine to chicken soup, pancake mix to baby formula.

The biotech industry estimates that 18 countries are growing 165 million acres of GM crops, chiefly cotton, maize and soya. It says the area planted with GM strains is rising by 10-15% annually, with early figures for 2004 suggesting it will rise again this year.

Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a nonpartisan research group told the Los Angeles Times:

"You read a long list of ingredients in a typical processed food, and people don't react to that in the same way as they would a loaf of bread in which they know that biotech wheat is the primary ingredient."

Environmentalists and other anti-GM activists, who often refer to GM foods as "Frankenstein crops", say the crops spell death to the countryside and are unproven on human health. They are thrilled by Monsanto’s announcement. Pat Vendetti of Greenpeace Canada said: "Let's hope GM wheat permanently joins GM flax, GM tomatoes and GM potatoes in their dustbin of bad ideas."

Michael Meacher, Britain’s Minister of the Environment from 1997-2003, wrote in the Times of London on April 29 that although there is no conclusive evidence that GM foods are bad for health, it is not always best to rely on science. He points out that many biotech industries—Monsanto among them--may have financial links to the food safety panels that investigate there products:

"The scientists staffing the official advisory committees and government regulatory bodies have, in a significant number of cases, financial links with the industry that they are supposed to be independently advising on and regulating. A recent study found that of the five scientific committees advising ministers on food safety, 28 of the 70 committee members investigated had links with the biotechnology industry, and at least 13 were linked to one of the Big Three - Monsanto, Zeneca or Novartis. Nor is this an accident. The civil servants who select for these bodies tend to look for a preponderant part of the membership, and particularly the chairman, to be "sound" -safely relied on not to cause embarrassment to the Government or industry if difficulties arise."

The safety of GM food is much debated. A big concern is that genetically modified seeds could mingle with natural seeds with consequences that nobody can predict. A pioneering study by the Union of Concerned Scientists in late February found that, what was thought to be crops of traditional corn, soybean, and canola seeds, had in fact been contaminated. The study draws no conclusions about when the mingling took place.

The Union of Concerned Scientists called for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study DNA contamination on a bigger scale, pass rules to prevent contamination, and preserve traditional seeds in all their variety and dependability.

The New York Times noted in March:

"This is a serious finding. … To contaminate traditional varieties of crops is to contaminate the genetic reservoir of plants on which humanity has depended for most of its history…The need now is for more extensive study, best undertaken by the Department of Agriculture. It's also time to subject genetically modified crops to more rigorous and more coherent testing. The scale of the experiment this country is engaged in -- and its potential effect on the environment, the food supply and the purity of traditional seed stocks -- demands vigilance on the same scale."

The Los Angeles Times comments on March 27 that in the short run, GM food seems harmless. Americans have been eating it for about ten years. But in the long run?

"Americans eat far more genetically modified foods than most people realize, and with no discernible ill effect. More than a third of the corn grown in the country now is modified, and most of the soybeans. Although making crops more resistant to pests is a worthwhile effort, the long-term success of these foods is unknown. ...

People have eaten modified foods for about a decade; they have eaten traditional foods for many thousands of years. Should genetic engineering of food prove a disappointment for some reason, humans will need those old seeds."

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