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9-Misc: The heartland wrestles with biotechnology



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TITLE:  The Heartland Wrestles With Biotechnology
SOURCE: The Washington Post, USA, by Justin Gillis
        http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A7480-2003Apr21.html
DATE:   Apr 22, 2003

------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------



The Heartland Wrestles With Biotechnology

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 insects.

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 leaders. 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 the 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 of dollars.

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."

 

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