2-Plants: Monsanto develops RR-wheat - but who will buy it?
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----------------------------- GENET-news -----------------------------
TITLE: Gene-altered U.S. wheat coming but who will buy it?
SOURCE: Reuters, by Carey Gillam
DATE: August 17, 2000
-------------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/ --------------------
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.
SCIENCE FACES FIERCE PROTESTS
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.
WHEAT FARMERS WORRY
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
"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
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