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GE Wheat Debate Heating Up

GE Wheat Debate Heating Up

September 19, 2001, Wednesday
Wheat feels the heat as Franken-feud erupts

Reuters News Agency

Kansas City

THE golden wheat fields of Kansas are set to become the latest battleground
in the war over so-called "Franken-foods", with the planned release of the
first genetically modified (GMO) wheat seeds.

The wheat industry has largely stood apart from the row over GMO crops
because wheat is more resistant to manipulation. The plant's bisexual
flowers make it a trickier genetic proposition than, say, corn or soybeans.
But growers in the US and Canada have now moved into the firing line, as
giant biotech outfit Monsanto begins offering a herbicide-resistant seed.

"We thought we were pretty lucky," said North Dakota farmer Alan Lee, who is
also a former chairman of the state's wheat commission. "Now we're in the
middle of it."

The debate is likely to be even fiercer over wheat because, unlike corn and
soybean, it is typically consumed more or less directly by people, whereas
the other grains tend to be used in animal feed.

Opposition to GMO has cost some farmers dearly as processors -- responding
to consumer concerns -- cut prices for GMO crops.

Nonetheless, GMO seeds (modified to fight pests or survive herbicides)
remain popular with US farmers because they are cheaper and more reliable to
grow.

A study by the National Centre of Food and Agricultural Policy in June
estimated the average saving in weed control for US farmers using Monsanto's
GMO soybeans was $US15 (about $30) an acre.

GMO crops needed only one dose of herbicide; non-GMO soybeans required three
or four applications, the study found.

Little wonder that 63 per cent of the US soybean crop this year -- 20
million hectares -- consists of GMO beans.

Monsanto pioneered GMO seeds. But some big customers and grain handlers,
stung by the level of consumer protests, are having second thoughts.
"Opposition is strong," said Dawn Forsythe, a spokeswoman for industry group
US Wheat Associates, which promotes exports.

Opposition to GMO wheat is strong in Japan and the European Union. Last
year, these two regions bought more than a third of US spring wheat exports.
Total exports are worth more than $US900 million.
Europe and parts of Asia have already demanded the segregation and labelling
of GMO crops, as well as greater testing of their effect on health and the
environment.

GMO opponents say the crops may cause allergies and illness and damage the
environment.

Fears of a consumer backlash have prompted opposition to GMO grain from the
likes of the powerful Canadian Wheat Board, which has a monopoly on Canada's
wheat exports.

The board and more than 200 Canadian farm groups sent a letter of warning to
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien on July 31, stating in part:
"Overwhelming numbers of Canadian farmers and consumers, as well as
customers for Canadian wheat overseas, have said that they do not want GMO
wheat at this time."

Canada is the world's third largest wheat exporter. The board fears that
trying to separate GMO and non-GM crops will make costs soar.
It may also be a pointless exercise. For centuries, grain handling and
processing has entailed "blending" -- taking lower grades or qualities and
mixing them with higher grades to attain more value.

There is growing evidence that it is nearly impossible to keep the grains
apart once they have been harvested.

Late last year, traces of GMO corn that had not been approved by US
officials for food use because of allergy concerns showed up in corn chips.
That led to wide-scale food recalls, export problems and millions of dollars
in farmer losses and lawsuits as their grain became "contaminated".
Nonetheless, the United Nations and many developing countries argue that GMO
crops -- particularly those that are drought and pest resistant -- are
vital.

"We have a long way to go," said Darrell Hanavan, chairman of a US wheat
industry committee on biotechnology and a member of an advisory committee on
GMO wheat set up by Monsanto this year. "We have to prepare the world for
(their) introduction."


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