THIRD WORLD NETWORK INFORMATION SERVICE ON BIOSAFETY
14 February 2001
Dear friends and colleagues
The following news articles reveal the current controversy within the U.S. wheat industry as to whether genetically modified wheat should be commercially planted for the first time in the world. The wheat variety concerned has been modified to be tolerant of Roundup Ready, a herbicide manufactured by Monsanto.
There are rising concerns about, and resistance to, GM wheat from foreign markets as well as from U.S. wheat farmers and millers. The U.S. wheat industry’s top experts are in a heated debate over GM wheat, as Monsanto moves ahead with plans to introduce the first GM wheat product between 2003-2005. This was evident at the 2001 Wheat Industry Conference and Exposition held in New Orleans on February 1, 2001.
In light of growing consumer opposition worldwide to genetically modified organisms, many in the U.S. wheat industry fear that the introduction of GM wheat could harm overall wheat exports. U.S. corn exports, for example, have greatly suffered since the recent discovery that StarLink corn, not approved for human consumption in the U.S. and banned altogether in some countries, had inadvertently contaminated the entire U.S. corn supply and entered the global human food chain. (TWN’s StarLink report was sent on this service on 1 December 2000).
Many countries have outrightly rejected GM wheat, while others have expressed strong reservations about buying it. European wheat importers told the U.S. industry that European consumers do not want GM wheat and warned that they would turn to other sources of wheat if the U.S. began planting GM varieties. Japanese food industry representatives do not see a market for GM wheat in Japan. Algeria announced in January that it would not import any GM wheat, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia are following this position.
The U.S. wheat industry, concerned about the possible loss of export markets, has entered into an agreement with Monsanto. A panel will be established to review an identity preservation system that Monsanto is developing to segregate GM wheat from non-GM varieties. The industry has also given Monsanto a list of 17 major wheat importers, where the company is to work on securing customer acceptance for GM wheat. We are concerned that there will now be a big public relations push by Monsanto to create “consumer demand” by persuading countries to accept GM wheat.
Meanwhile, U.S. farmers are worried about consumer rejection of GM wheat and the potential contamination of conventional or GM-free wheat varieties. Montana and North Dakota, major wheat producing states in the US, are awaiting the approval of state laws that would place a moratorium on the sale and planting of GM wheat.
Meanwhile, reports are already growing of the adverse effects of Monsanto’s GM Roundup Ready soya which has entered the global market and food chain for a number of years.
Therefore, we urge you to ensure that your country will also not accept GM wheat, whether as for consumption or planting.
With best wishes,
Yoke Ling and Lim Li Lin
MONSANTO GM WHEAT HOT TOPIC AT INDUSTRY GATHERING
February 1, 2001
NEW ORLEANS, La., Feb 1 (Reuters) - Plans for introducing genetically modified wheat were being debated by top wheat industry experts on Thursday, as continuing concerns about GM corn contamination had many wheat players skittish of what biotech tinkering might do to wheat exports. >From farmers to millers, fear and skepticism over GM wheat was widespread at the 2001 Wheat Industry Conference and Exposition, attended by hundreds of industry representatives. Though many said they thought technology would ultimately be beneficial for wheat producers as well as consumers, plans by Monsanto Co. to bring a GM wheat to market between 2003-2005 were seen by many as the wrong product at the wrong time.
“With five classes of wheat in the U.S., we already can give the customer what he wants,” said U.S. Wheat Associates board member Fred Elling, a Montana wheat grower. “Why should we grow something they don’t want?” Elling and others said that international reluctance to embrace GM foods will hurt U.S. exports of all wheat if a GM strain is introduced. “We’re in favor of biotechnology, but we’re already struggling to have our grain exported,” said Kansas Association of Wheat Growers president Dean Stoskopf. “There is a lot of concern.”
The U.S. has seen U.S. corn exports hit hard by recent contamination of food-grade corn with non-food approved StarLink biotech corn, particularly in sales to top customer Japan. Efforts to segregate the GM corn from non-GM corn failed, resulting in product recalls and angry importers.
With the corn problems still ongoing, earlier this week a Japanese customer expressed strong reservations to the U.S. wheat industry about GM wheat prospects there, adding to a long list of negative comments and concerns that have been recorded from many countries, according to U.S. Wheat Associates, which markets U.S. wheat internationally. But with St. Louis-based Monsanto moving ahead with the world’s first GM wheat product, a Roundup Ready variety that will be resistant to herbicide, wheat industry leaders were using this week’s gathering to formulate a strategy aimed at easing the introduction.
INDUSTRY ASKS MONSANTO TO WOO IMPORTERS
To that end, the wheat industry has reached an agreement with Monsanto that calls for the establishment of an industry committee that will review an identity preservation system now being developed by Monsanto for GM wheat. The committee will “criticize and provide input” to Monsanto on the IP system, which should be developed by the end of 2001, said Darrell Hanavan, chairman of the joint biotechnology committee of NAWG and U.S. Wheat Associates. The industry has also given Monsanto a list of 17 key wheat importers and has asked the company to work to gain customer acceptance in those markets, said Hanavan.
“What we hope to avoid is that we have a customer base that won’t accept it,” he said. “We want it to be a successful introduction.” Hanavan said the industry believes it is preferable to introduce a consumer-driven GM wheat product first, in order to build market demand, rather than the producer-demand driven Roundup Ready.
Several companies are in the process of a GM wheat that would directly benefit consumers, including Monsanto, but the Roundup Ready wheat is the nearest to commercialization, and is not likely to be delayed, industry experts said.
That makes many nervous, including those in the milling industry, said North American Millers Association president Betsy Faga. Millers are very worried about the ability to adequately segregate GM from non-GM wheat, and somewhat skeptical about how well an identity preservation system will work. Consumer tolerance and acceptance will be key, Faga said.
For its part, Monsanto officials see the concerns as valid, said spokeswoman Kelly Clauss. The company has committed to not commercializing the GM wheat until it is food- and feed-approved in the United States and in Japan, and it will work hard to gain consumer acceptance of wheat products through educational programs, she said.
Clauss said though some may disagree with Monsanto’s strategy, the introduction of the first GM wheat and the industry activities surrounding plans for that introduction are significant for the future. “It is an important step for the wheat industry,” Clauss said, “This is an invaluable opportunity. If all these people can come together and bring some consensus around a project like Roundup Ready wheat ... the potential for what that might hold for the future of wheat is great.”
EUROPEAN BUYERS WARN U.S. OVER GENE WHEAT PLANS
By Greg Frost, Reuters
February 2, 2001
PARIS - European buyers of U.S. spring wheat said on Friday there was no market for genetically modified (GM) wheat in Europe and warned they would take their business elsewhere if U.S. farmers began planting such crops. “We will never be in the market for it,” said Kjetil Gran Bergsholm, a trader at Norwegian importer Stakorn. He said Norway bought 30,000-40,000 tonnes of high-quality wheat each year, and he chose between supplies from the United States, Canada and Kazakhstan based on price. “We have to listen to our customers, and they don’t want GM wheat. If the U.S. goes ahead with this, we’d have to turn to Canada and Kazakhstan to get those supplies,” he said.
St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto Co said last month it was moving ahead with the world’s first GM wheat product despite concerns about scientific tinkering with food grains. Monsanto said it is developing a Roundup Ready variety of dark northern spring wheat, which it hopes to commercialise between 2003 and 2005. The wheat, modified to resist the company’s Roundup herbicide, is designed to boost yields.
While Norway only buys a few thousand tonnes of U.S. dark northern spring wheat each year, Europe represents a key market for the grain. According to USDA statistics, U.S. exports of dark northern spring wheat to the European Union and other western European countries totalled more than 1.1 million tonnes in 1999/2000 -- nearly a fifth of all U.S. dark northern spring wheat exports that year.
Fearing the loss of possible markets in Europe and elsewhere, the U.S. wheat industry has reached an agreement with Monsanto that calls for a panel to review a so-called identity preservation system the company is developing that would segregate GM wheat from non-GM wheat. The industry has also given Monsanto a list of 17 key wheat importers and has asked it to work to gain customer acceptance for the wheat in those markets.
It was not immediately clear, however, whether Monsanto would be able to convince consumers in Europe-a hotbed of opposition to bio-engineered crops-of the benefit of wheat that is modified to resist a weed-killing chemical. “Our customers-supermarkets, bakeries and the like-they’re not ready for it,” a purchaser at a large northern European miller said, noting European shoppers were increasingly aware of what went into the products they buy.
“It could mean that we would completely stop importing from that region if they could not guarantee that it is not genetically modified,” he added. Alexander Waugh, director-general of British and Irish millers’ association NABIM, said his group was scheduled to meet Monsanto in the coming weeks to discuss its GM wheat proposal, among other issues.
“The reality is that for the time being, our customers in Europe don’t really want anything genetically modified, and it’s difficult to see that changing in the near future,” Waugh said. “UK millers have regularly pressed Monsanto that for genetically modified crops to have any marketing potential, they have to offer consumers a benefit,” he said. “Personally, I don’t think Roundup Ready offers a lot to consumers.”
FARMERS FOREIGN MARKETS SEND NEGATIVE SIGNALS ABOUT ROUNDUP READY WHEAT
February 2, 2001
(February 2, 2001 -- Cropchoice news) -- The concerns are sprouting before Monsanto even introduces its newest batch of biotech-Roundup Ready wheat. They range from outright rejection by foreign markets that don’t want it, to contamination of conventional varieties. The Montana and North Dakota legislatures have responded with bills that, if passed, would place a moratorium on the sale and planting of genetically engineered wheat.
“As time goes on we will not necessarily be able to guarantee that conventional varieties can remain free of genetically modified material,” said Todd Leake, who grows wheat on 1,300 acres in North Dakota. This could hurt farmers trying to grow conventional wheat for overseas markets that demand a product free of genetic modification.
“A lot of farmers would like to use Roundup Ready wheat because it would cut herbicide costs and be more convenient to spray on our crops and clean up fields,” Leake said. “But with the increased technology fees for the seed, losing the right to propagate our own seed and having to purchase every bushel we plant, and especially losing our export markets, the tradeoffs are not in the favor of Roundup Ready wheat with a lot of growers.”
However, Roundup Ready wheat won’t appear on the market until sometime between 2003 and 2005, said Monsanto spokesman Mark Buckingham. The company hasn’t applied yet to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approval of the product.
Still, export markets are already sending negative signals.
Tsutomu Shigota, senior managing director of the Japan Flour Millers Association, earlier this month told Dow Jones: “Under the circumstances, I strongly doubt that any bakery and noodle products made from genetically modified wheat or even conventional wheat that may contain modified wheat will be accepted in the Japanese market. World wheat supply has been abundant in recent years, and I don’t see why we have to deal with modified wheat...I believe the production of modified wheat at this time will be a very risky challenge for U.S. producers.”
On Jan. 5, Algeria, which imports large amounts of durum wheat from the United States, announced that it would not import any genetically modified wheat. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are taking a similar tack with respect to wheat.
Italians don’t want genetically modified wheat, either. The website, www.infoexport.gc.ca, recently reported that “given the situation in Italy, with (leading farmers’ group) Confagricoltura promising consumers to use only GM-free wheat, attention and effort should be directed to this subject.”
To assuage these fears, which Buckingham believes are due in large part to the StarLink corn contamination incident, Monsanto is working with the wheat industry to ensure that its new product doesn’t disrupt the market.
“We will not launch Roundup Ready wheat until it has full regulatory approval for food and feed use in the United States and in Japan,” he said.
Some farmers are concerned that genetically modified wheat will too easily cross-pollinate with conventional varieties.
“Once the seed stocks are grown out, this accelerates the process of GM crops ending up everywhere,” said Leake, who also works with the Farmers Union and the Dakota Resource Council on wheat issues.
However, setting a 4.5 to 5-foot buffer (typical for wheat) between conventional and genetically altered varieties will greatly reduce, but not eliminate, cross pollination, said Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at the University of California at Riverside. Purity, he noted, in this case equals 1 percent contamination.
Most contamination happens during seed processing, planting, harvesting and distribution of the crop, said Jane Rissler, a plant pathologist on staff at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.
At the seed processing facility, employees might accidentally mix genetically modified and conventional seeds, or incorrectly label bags.
All harvesting equipment, trucks, and silos must be kept clean when trying to segregate genetically modified and conventional wheat. This, of course, is labor and time intensive.
“A farmer to the west of me didn’t clean out his planting drill between planting of Roundup Ready soybeans and conventional soy,” Leake said. “In the end, the entire crop was GM (genetically modified). This was enough to qualify him for a GM discount.” In this case, discount is not a plus. It means that the elevator paid the farmer less for his soybeans because they were genetically engineered.
Ground contamination also plays a role, he said. Farmers who grow a genetically modified crop one season and a conventional variety the next would have a tough time guaranteeing that no remnants of the transgenic crop remain. This phenomenon is better known as volunteer seed. It lies dormant in the soil and then sprouts the next spring.
Canada’s experience with canola further illustrates the nightmare of biotech crop contamination. Farmers first planted Roundup Ready canola in western Canada in 1995. Five years later, more than half of the crop was considered genetically modified because of cross pollination and segregation problems. Farmers lost money when they couldn’t export their canola to many parts of the world.
In an interview last summer, an Aventis official said, “the entire Canadian canola crop has to be considered genetically modified for export purposes.” Aventis held the license to market Roundup Ready canola in Canada.
In response to concerns that genetically modified wheat will contaminate conventional varieties, Buckingham said that Monsanto is committed to working with the National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates to develop a grain handling system that will reliably deliver what customers want. They haven’t yet begun working on this system, though.
Based on his conversations with farmers, elevator managers and grain company executives, Leake doubts they’ll be able to address the segregation technology and infrastructure requirements necessary to handle Roundup Ready wheat.
Just in case Monsanto’s system isn’t working, legislation is pending in the Montana and North Dakota legislatures. A bill in the Montana State House of Representatives would place a moratorium on the production of genetically modified wheat. HB 211 reads as follows:
“1. Moratorium on production of genetically modified wheat.
(1) Genetically modified organisms may pose risks of unknown dimensions to Montana’s economy, native environment, and agricultural industry. The planting of genetically modified crops over the past several years has outpaced our understanding of the immediate and long-term economic and environmental effects of genetically modified organisms. Because of these concerns, the legislature finds it appropriate to impose a moratorium on the production of genetically modified wheat.
(2) A person may not plant genetically modified wheat in Montana.
Section 2. Termination. [This act] terminates October 1, 2003.”
[for details go to: http://laws.leg.state.mt.us:8000/laws01/plsql/law0203w$.startup use bill search option <HB 211> a public hearing will be on February 6, 2001]
Meanwhile, in North Dakota, legislators are considering a prohibition on the sale of genetically modified wheat seed until Aug. 1, 2003.
[for details go to:
GENETICALLY MODIFIED WHEAT SEED MORATORIUM, HB 1338
http://ranch.state.nd.us/LR/01/bill_actions/BA1338.html a public hearing will be on February 8, 2001]
Leake thinks these measures are the least that government can do to help resolve the liability, segregation, technology agreement and market acceptance issues that likely will happen with biotech wheat just as they did with corn, soy and canola.
“As far as the chances for passage,” Leake said, “we have a lot of support in North Dakota and Montana for this, but moratoriums are notoriously difficult to get enacted, and legislators are sometimes hesitant.”
Readers may have noted that both of these moratoriums terminate before Monsanto introduces Roundup Ready wheat sometime between 2003 and 2005.
Leake said that the existing legislation, if passed, would cover the 2003 planting season. The incoming legislatures would have to decide whether to reauthorize the moratoriums. Leake thinks they would do so unless a resolution is reached on such issues as foreign market acceptance of Roundup Ready wheat and segregation, among others.