ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

17 September 2002


Monsanto was given four hours to present its position while a "roomful of citizens" got  only about 45 minutes. "A lot of citizens weren't allowed to testify," she  said. "Some members of the legislature just don't want to hear from them."


GM Wheat Portends Disaster for Great Plains

By Kari Lydersen,  AlterNet
September 9, 2002

Todd Leake has been growing hard red spring  wheat at his farm in eastern North Dakota for 25 years. The 1,000 acres he  plants with hard red spring wheat represents half his total crop. Like most  farmers in the area, more than half his crop is exported for sale in markets  in Europe, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and other foreign countries.

If Monsanto and other biotech companies succeed in their push to allow genetically modified (called GE, GM or GMO) wheat on the market, Leake is afraid he may see his profits based on decades of work go down the drain.

There are a variety of reasons that environmentalists, farmers, health activists, "globophobics" and others oppose the development of GE or GM crops. People fear the control it gives Monsanto and other multinational corporations over farmers' livelihoods. Many worry that the health and environmental effects of genetically modified foods are still unknown, and that they could be harmful to our land and our bodies.

Farmers worry  about cross-contamination from neighbors' GM crops. Biotech companies  marketing GM seeds have the right to enter a farmer's field and test for  their seed strains. They can fine farmers thousands of dollars if their  crops test positive for genetically modified strains that the farmer didn't  purchase, even though crops can easily become contaminated by pollen from a  neighbor's field.

Farmers are also not allowed to save seeds from year  to year as they traditionally have done with non-GM crops. When a farmer  plants a crop from GM seeds, he is required to purchase a new batch of seeds  each year. Again companies can fine farmers huge amounts for this practice. Brothers Paul and John Mayfield, for example, were recently fined $75,000 by  Monsanto for replanting 800 bushels of GM soybean seeds they had saved.

But on top of all these concerns, there is an even simpler reason to oppose GM wheat, according to many farmers in the Great Plains, where Monsanto is pushing to introduce genetically modified hard red spring wheat  for commercial sale.

Regardless of whether the potential negative  health and environmental effects are real or imagined, much of the world  is certain that it doesn't want GM foods. Very certain. And this fact could  only have devastating economic implications for American farmers.

The European Union and various countries in Asia have all made it clear that they don't want any genetically modified crops, and they test incoming shipments to make sure they don't get any. Given the frequency and ease of cross-pollination, farmers say, virtually the only way for a country to ensure they are not getting any GM foods is to stop buying them from the U.S. all together.

"It's basically impossible to segregate it,"  said Leake, who is a member of the grassroots farmers group the Dakota  Resource Council. "The general consensus is that there will be  cross-pollination from neighbors' fields. And it can get contaminated  not only in the field, but from the seed stock, from handling the equipment  that had GM seeds in it, from mixing in the [grain] elevator."

A  study quoted in the new book, "Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture," noted that only 20 percent of grain elevators surveyed in the U.S. have separate facilities for GM and non-GM soybeans. So even if a farmer were to avoid the economic pressure to buy GM wheat and to avoid cross-contamination from neighbors, his crops could still get contaminated in the elevator and test positive for genetic modification once they reach the market.

Monsanto spokesman Mark Buckingham said the company has made a commitment to develop technologies to prevent  contamination and to make sure farmers continue to have choices about what  kind of seeds they buy. "We have committed not to introduce [GM wheat] on  the market until we have different varieties to offer, so a farmer who wants  Roundup Ready wheat can get it and one who wants traditional wheat can get  that," said Buckingham. While Buckingham didn't offer a specific answer to  fears about contamination from GM crops, farmers say the risk is very much  on their minds.

"I believe it's inevitable it would escape," said Sarah  Vogel, the former commissioner of agriculture in North Dakota (1989 to 1996)  and currently a lawyer in private practice. "It's really a bad idea."

Right now GM wheat is being grown in research plots in North Dakota with test permits from the federal Animal, Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

The GM wheat furthest along in production is Roundup  Ready, meaning it can resist the Roundup herbicide sold by Monsanto, which  kills just about all weeds. In the future other types of GM wheat and other  crops would likely also be introduced, including plants with "nutriceuticals and pharmaceuticals," meaning with various drugs and nutrients built in.

While several major companies, including Syngenta, Novartis and Aventis, have been developing and marketing various GM crops, St. Louis-based Monsanto is clearly the industry leader.

"They talk about things  like insulin bred into the plant for diabetics," said Leake. "That's  just scary to me."

Already, eight of the top 11 countries to which the U.S.  sells hard red spring wheat have regulations against GM wheat or labeling  restrictions regarding GM foods that the U.S. can't comply with. Staffers at  the Dakota Resource Council say the organization has gotten letters from Belgium and other countries' regulatory committees saying they won't buy any  U.S. wheat if there is even a possibility of contamination.

Monsanto  has already introduced GM corn, potatoes, canola, soybeans and other crops in the U.S., Canada and other countries. Monsanto markets hundreds  of different varieties of Roundup Ready soybeans, making up at least 60  percent of the U.S. market.

"Our Roundup Ready soybeans have been a  tremendous success," said Buckingham.

"It has taken seven years since  their introduction, but now 75 percent of soybean crops are Roundup Ready.  We see a similar thing with wheat. It will take some years for the  technologies to catch on, but we believe it will be successful for everyone  involved."

Wheat, specifically hard red spring wheat, is one of the next  on the list for potential introduction. Originally Monsanto said it  would introduce the GM wheat in 2003, but now it has pushed back the date to 2005 or later. Buckingham said the company is still "years" away from offering any GM wheat for commercial sale.

In recent releases Monsanto  said it was delaying the release until it obtained consumer and farmer  acceptance of the product. "But that doesn't really mean anything," said  Leake. "They're still pursuing the deregulation they need while telling  people they're delaying. They're really right on track."

About half  of the country's hard red spring wheat is grown in North Dakota, with 60 to  70 percent of those crops being exported. In parts of Montana and North  Dakota, the harsh plains conditions mean hard red spring wheat is pretty  much the only crop that is grown. Therefore, the introduction of GM wheat  and subsequent loss of European and Asian markets could be devastating for  the economy of the entire region.

Buckingham said that Monsanto "has a  commitment to winning regulatory approval in various countries so before we  sell seed, we know there will be a market for it."  When asked  what countries the company was working to gain regulatory approval in,  he said, "Mainly the USA, which is the biggest single consumer of wheat."

Legislation seeking to curb the introduction of GM wheat has already been proposed in both Montana and North Dakota. In North Dakota last year, the GM wheat moratorium bill passed the House Agricultural Committee. In the Senate Agricultural Committee the bill was basically killed by North Dakota Sen. Terry Wanzek, chair of the agricultural committee, and transformed from  a ban on GM wheat to a call for a study.

Many Great Plains farmers  think lobbying by the industry and backing by President Bush resulted in the  failure of the moratorium. They note that a shift in the legislative climate  occurred after Bush made a visit to Fargo to meet with legislators.  Despite pressure from Monsanto and the rest of the biotech lobby, there is  still strong bipartisan political opposition to GM crops.

Legislators in North Dakota are looking at two separate bills related to GM wheat for the coming session: a moratorium bill spearheaded by State Rep. Phil Mueller that would prevent the commercial introduction of GM wheat  pending more studies; and a liability bill headed by State Sen. Bill Bowman that would hold Monsanto or other biotech companies financially responsible  for the outcome of farmers' GM crops.

Currently, there is basically  no liability for the companies that market GM seeds. Buckingham declined to  comment on the liability issue. Vogel, who testified before the North Dakota  legislature about her opposition to GM wheat, said that, "the contract  farmers have to sign when they buy GM seeds basically releases Monsanto from  virtually every product liability, warranty, everything. I've never seen  anyone sell something and remove themselves from any future liability for  it. It's like they're saying, 'If you can't sell this, don't come whining to  us, just eat it.'"

Vogel said that at the hearings, Monsanto was given  four hours to present its position while a "roomful of citizens" got  only about 45 minutes. "A lot of citizens weren't allowed to testify," she  said. "Some members of the legislature just don't want to hear from them."

Farmers and advocates say they hope state legislation like that which will be proposed in North Dakota when the session starts in January 2003 will end up having national effects.

Currently, the USDA has not  taken a stand on GM crops except to maintain the position that they are  "substantially equivalent" to standard crops and therefore don't merit  special regulation or labeling. A lawyer who asked his name not be used said  Monsanto will likely argue that state legislation against GM wheat would  violate commerce clauses against state regulation of industry. Buckingham declined to comment on possible legislation.

In her testimony Vogel  compared the potential impact of GM wheat to an outbreak in Arizona of a  fungal disease from India called "Karnal bunt." After the outbreak, many  companies refused to buy any crops from Arizona farmers. "If Karnal bunt or  GMO wheat is found in our wheat, we lose most if not all of our hard-fought  export markets," she told the legislature. "A farmer said to me the other  day, 'I just don't grow crops I can't sell.'"

Farmers fear that if GM  hard red spring wheat is introduced, GM strains of other types of wheat  would be close behind, posing the same economic danger to the market. Wheat  is the third most prevalent crop in the U.S. behind corn and soybeans,  with wheat fields covering a full four percent of the country's land,  according to "Fatal Harvest," for a total of more than 60 million acres.

Leake, Vogel and other farmers agree that while the health and environmental effects of GM wheat would take longer to track, the economic impact would be almost immediate. The loss of European and Asian markets would be compounded by the fact that Canada, which doesn't allow GM wheat, would probably swoop in and market its wheat as an alternative to the U.S.

"There are all kinds of ethical and scientific arguments against GM wheat, but on a pure economic level it would have a huge effect," Vogel said.

"To allow the widespread growing of GM wheat is basically asking for  an embargo of all exports. The price would fall to the price of feed wheat; there would be a tremendous devaluation."

She added that many  farmers could go unpaid if their crops don't sell, and grain elevators,  combine equipment and other machines could be rendered useless and even  demolished because of contamination from GM crops. "It could be an  economic disaster," she said. "I see nothing good about GM wheat."

 Kari  Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for many publications, including the Washington Post, Chicago Ink, the Chicago Reader and In These Times.

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