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Resistance to GE Wheat Still Prompts Legislative Debate in North Dakota

Feb. 13, 2005

Resistance to biotech wheat still prompting legislative debate

CURT WOODWARD
Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. - Months after samples of a promising biotech wheat variety
were uprooted from research plots and destroyed, some farm-country lawmakers
are trying to raise the financial stakes for bringing the wheat back.

Their proposals would hold seed developers responsible for money damage
claims from organic farmers and other producers who shun biotech wheat. They
have been praised as ways to protect family farms, and denounced as attempts
to block revolutionary technology.

Terry Wanzek, a rural Jamestown farmer who is president of the North Dakota
Grain Growers Association, said increasing biotech companies' legal exposure
would discourage them from attempting to remedy common wheat diseases, or
developing varieties that thrive in harsh climates.

"I can't imagine sitting in a rocking chair on my porch telling my kids, 'I
fought biotech,'" Wanzek said. "It'll sound as absurd as saying 'I fought
Louis Pasteur' or 'I fought Thomas Edison.'"

Others, like Montana state Sen. Jon Tester, say farmers must be able to seek
damages from biotech companies if their crops are contaminated once the
altered wheat takes root. He says claims that research would be limited are
"a smoke screen."

"I think that if this stuff is well thought out and well researched, then
step up to the plate and stand behind it," he said.

Tester is among the supporters of legislation that would assign strict
financial liability to companies that produce biotech wheat. The measures
are being considered in North Dakota and Montana, with similar bills
applying to all biotech crops introduced in Hawaii and Vermont.

The legislation would shield farmers from most financial claims if a biotech
crop creeps into a field or grain elevator where it isn't wanted, and
contaminates non-biotech supplies. The idea has been proposed before, but
has not become law in any state, according to the National Conference of
State Legislatures.

Todd Leake, an Emerado farmer and biotech wheat opponent, says farmers need
the protection. Agriculture companies require farmers to sign licensing
agreements before they may use biotech seed. The agreements transfer legal
liability to farmers if pollen from their crop gets into a neighbor's field,
Leake says.

"Right now, every participant in the whole process of bringing (genetically
modified) wheat forward ... is basically absolving itself from liability,"
Leake said. "Farmers and elevators are left with all the liability for GMO
wheat contamination."

Biotechnology is used in such U.S. crops as corn, soybeans, canola and
cotton. Biotech wheat, however, has not been commercialized. The prospect of
genetically modified wheat is touchier, because wheat is used to make human
food, while corn and soybeans are most often used as livestock feed.

The St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. announced last year that it was shelving a
type of wheat altered to resist one of the company's herbicides, in part
because of an unfavorable market. The company had research samples at North
Dakota State University, which were recalled and destroyed.

That makes legislative resistance even more puzzling, said Lisa Dry, a
spokeswoman for the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Monsanto is a member of the group, which represents companies and colleges
involved in biotechnology development.

"With Monsanto deciding not to market it yet, why are they putting this bill
forward? I don't have a clue," Dry said.

Supporters say the time is right, particularly in rural states where the
Legislature meets only every two years.

"The research is still going on. This issue is not going away," said Sen.
Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, the primary sponsor of the North Dakota
legislation.

Wheat is big business in the Midwest, and North Dakota is among the nation's
leading producers. Last year, the state supplied 46 percent of the nation's
supply of hard red spring wheat, which is milled to produce bakery flour.

Those who oppose biotech wheat fear that once the crop is introduced, it
will spread far beyond the fields in which it is planted and cut off access
to valuable markets. Customers in Europe and Japan, which import significant
amounts of U.S. wheat, have resisted biotech varieties.

Industry supporters counter that farmers already have effective ways to
segregate different crops and have learned to live alongside biotech
versions of a half-dozen other products.

North Dakota Rep. Mike Brandenburg, R-Edgeley, said the liability measure
has little chance of getting approval in the Legislature. The North Dakota
Senate's Agriculture Committee has recommended that the bill be defeated,
and a Senate vote is likely this week.

If the measure were approved, innovative technology would be virtually
banished from the state, Brandenburg said.

"The world changes all the time," he said. "It's the same thing with
farming. We can't go back."

For Tester, the debate is a microcosm of the strain between small farmers
wary of biotech and large companies that make a living in the industry.

"Who's going to profit from this?" he asked. "Who's pushed the envelope to
get this developed? It's agribusiness, agribusiness, agribusiness. Who's
going to get sued if things go awry? It's the family farmer."

© 2005 AP Wire and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
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