May 7, 2003
Wheat Farmers Not ready for Roundup
USDA should listen to markets as it weighs GMO wheat application.
The trouble that "Roundup Ready" corn and soybeans created in foreign
markets is rightly a significant caution flag for the adoption of
Roundup Ready wheat. Genetic alteration makes the crops impervious,
or nearly so, to Roundup, a popular herbicide made by Monsanto that
saves farmers labor and money. Despite much hysteria, solid science
has shown the GMOs, as genetically modified organisms are known,
to be safe. Normally, we would say: Let the science rule. But markets
don't run on science.
And wheat buyers, from the domestic food industry to an overwhelming
majority of foreign countries, say they won't buy GMO wheat. Iowa
State University ag economist Robert Wisner recently projected that
if GMO wheat is introduced, wheat prices could drop by about one-third.
Unlike soybeans and corn, which found other markets to replace those
lost to GMO fears, there are many more alternative suppliers of
wheat in world markets. Loss of exports might force excess wheat
supplies into the domestic feed market, Wisner says.
That's a concern for the Nebraskans who grow plentiful corn and
soybean crops, as well as wheat growers who would be affected by
damage both to the market for their grain to and trade relationships.
(Nebraska, it should be noted, grows mostly winter wheat, not the
spring variety being developed as "Roundup Ready.") Another market
barrier is that wheat, used primarily in foods, would face GMO labeling
laws in many countries in which beans and corn, used for feed, do
not. So even if their governments approve imports of GMO food ingredients,
consumers and foreign food industries might still reject such crops.
That's one reason to be cautious about promises from Monsanto that
it will not release Roundup Ready wheat until it has secured market
acceptance. Another caution flag is profit pressure. A few weeds
are beginning to show resistance to the company's immensely successful
Roundup herbicide. It would make sense for Monsanto to want to cash
in before much of Roundup's effectiveness is lost. Regulators at
the U.S. Department of Agriculture can't afford to look just at
the science on this issue. Too much is at stake - both in terms
of the huge farm markets and the taxpayer-funded farm subsidies.