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2-Plants: Monsanto develops RR-wheat - but who will buy it?

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TITLE:  Gene-altered U.S. wheat coming but who will buy it?
SOURCE: Reuters, by Carey Gillam
DATE:   August 17, 2000

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Gene-altered U.S. wheat coming but who will buy it?

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A loaf of bread could soon become controversial. 
>From university laboratories to U.S. government-run greenhouses, 
research is moving forward to bring the first genetically modified 
(GMO) wheat to market as early as 2003. The goals are noble - to make 
wheat production more efficient and robust for farmers and to make 
wheat better for bakers and more nutritious for consumers. But 
success may also open a new front in the global debate over the 
safety of genetically modified foods as biotech wheat makes its way 
into staples like bread, crackers and pasta.

"There is this fear of unleashing genes into the food supply and into 
the environment," said Jim Peterson, a wheat breeder at Oregon State 
University, which recently signed a deal with Monsanto Co. to develop 
a gene-altered wheat. "Until we can have a gene that has true 
consumer benefits, we are going to have some trouble with acceptance."

Wheat is the second-largest food grain grown in the world - corn is 
the first - and is the top grain traded internationally, making it 
subject to intense global scrutiny. That fact, combined with a swarm 
of protests in the United States, Europe and Asia over fears that GMO 
crops might harm human health and the environment, have many in the 
wheat industry more than a little nervous. GMO advocates say the 
technology is safe, but so far, the market is unconvinced.

"'If you grow GMO wheat, we will not want to buy it.' That's what 
we're hearing from our customers," U.S. Wheat Associates spokeswoman 
Dawn Forsythe said. "They're saying 'we see where it is helpful for 
your farmers, but what does it do for us, and why should we buy it?'" 
Forsythe said that the top importers of U.S. wheat, including Egypt 
and Japan, have already said they want nothing to do with GMO wheat.


Despite the concerns, Oregon State and three other U.S. universities 
have recently agreed with Monsanto, the leading player in advancing 
genetically modified grain varieties, to develop and bring to market 
a "Roundup Ready" spring wheat as early as 2003. The deals with 
Oregon State, Washington State University, South Dakota State 
University and the University of Minnesota would bring little direct 
benefit to consumers, who know spring wheat mainly as the chief 
ingredient in bagels and rolls. But farmers could theoretically save 
on production costs with the herbicide-tolerant strain.

Monsanto is also in discussions with other universities for research 
into different wheat classes, such as hard red winter wheat, another 
bread staple. Monsanto, which has been the subject of many anti-GMO 
protests, became a unit of U.S.-Swedish drug firm Pharmacia Corp in 
March. Company officials declined to discuss the issue other than to 
confirm that the company was currently in the research phase of 
developing Roundup Ready wheat.

The work in GMO wheat comes amid a global firestorm of controversy 
that is complicating efforts to promote modified corn, a quarter of 
the U.S. crop, and soybeans, which make up more than half of the 
soybeans that American farmers produce. Protesters have vandalised 
and burned biotech university laboratories in the United States, 
started a riot at an international biotechnology industry meeting in 
Italy, and ambushed a U.S. cargo ship in Wales carrying genetically 
modified soybeans. In addition to fears of damage to health and 
environment, some GMO opponents also say companies pushing the 
technology want to control the food supply.


Similar opposition could be lying in wait for wheat, a crop that 
amounted to $3.7 billion in U.S. exports last year and is one of the 
United States' top agricultural export products. And all of the 
controversy has wheat farmers in a bind. GMO wheat could help boost 
their bottom line, or it could leave them with bins full of 
unmarketable grain.

"Wheat farmers would like to embrace the technology but they also are 
concerned about their export markets, which account for 50 percent of 
total U.S. wheat production," said Darrell Hanavan, head of a biotech 
committee of the National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat 
Associates. "Farmers are asking 'Is it going to be accepted?' We 
don't know the answer to that," Hanavan said.

Many in the wheat industry are working on strategies for segregation 
so U.S. wheat customers won't have to worry about GM0 wheat mixed in 
with non-GM0 wheat. But no clear plan has been defined yet. 
Meanwhile, a growing sentiment says the solution to market acceptance 
is likely to be found in products that directly benefit consumers, 
rather than farmers or large corporations.

As far as wheat goes, that day is a long way off, according to Ann 
Blechl, a geneticist with the Agricultural Research Service of the 
U.S. Agriculture Department. Blechl is now working on GMO traits to 
give consumers wheat with improved protein for bread and pasta, 
eliminating the nutritional need for meat and bean proteins, as well 
as wheat with better baking characteristics. "In the present 
political climate I don't know how close we'll ever get to bringing 
these things to market," she said.

University of Minnesota wheat breeder Jim Anderson, one of those 
working on the new GMO spring wheat, is also less than optimistic: "I 
don't know that anybody wants to be first with this, and have to test 
the waters."


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