"U.S. states seek laws to limit new biotech wheat"
February 9, 2001
Top U.S. spring wheat states are considering legislation restricting genetically modified wheat production in order to protect farmers from losing export business to countries opposed to buying bioengineered food.
The proposed new laws, which were being debated this week in North Dakota and Montana, include calls for setting moratoriums on the planting of genetically modified (GM) wheat.
"These bills are surfacing in North Dakota because of a genuine, sincere concern for the market," said Terry Wanzek, chairman of North Dakota's Senate Agriculture Committee. "Our major wheat customers say they won't accept any wheat that has genetically enhanced characteristics, and we're listening to our customers."
Controversy over the safety of GM foods is rampant around the globe, particularly in Europe and Japan, two of the top markets for U.S. spring wheat, and the U.S. wheat industry is under pressure from foreign customers not to support GM wheat.
Fears of biotech food problems were inflamed late last year when food-grade corn was contaminated with biotech "StarLink" corn that is not approved for food use. Efforts to segregate the GM corn from non-GM corn failed, resulting in product recalls and angry importers.
The first GM wheat expected to hit the market is a spring wheat variety engineered to be resistant to herbicide. North Dakota is the top U.S. spring wheat growing state, producing 55 percent of the U.S. crop.
But St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., the agricultural biotech giant that has developed the world's first GM wheat product, said Thursday that the proposed state laws aimed at GM wheat are not necessary.
"We appreciate that there are a lot of concerns and questions and discussion that has to be had around biotechnology, but the benefits are also clear," said Monsanto spokesman Mark Buckingham. "Going forward the benefits will be more widely understood. This kind of legislation won't be necessary."
Monsanto said it does not plan to bring the GM wheat to market until sometime between 2003-2005, and will work with the wheat industry in the interim to build market acceptance.
Despite the assurances by Monsanto, lawmakers in North Dakota Thursday were scheduled to take up in committee a proposed new law seeking a moratorium on the introduction of GM wheat seed into North Dakota wheat fields until at least August 2003.
Another bill introduced this session seeks to limit rights of companies who hold patents on GM crops. A third bill calls for a system that would provide third-party certification of segregation that growers could use to market their wheat as non-GM if desired.
In Montana, another top spring wheat growing state, lawmakers are considering a two-year moratorium on GM wheat, as well as commissioning a study on the benefits and problems that might stem from biotech wheat. Hearings earlier this week in the Montana legislature drew outspoken protestors and proponents of GM wheat.
Monsanto has said it will not roll out the GM wheat until it gains regulatory approvals in the U.S. and in Japan for food use. But questions remain about reaction in Europe to the new product, and that has industry watchers keeping a keen eye on developments.
"We want the European Union also," said North Dakota Wheat Commission Chairman Alan Lee.
"We've told Monsanto that. Europe is a big spring wheat market for us. You can't afford to lose a bushel of export to anybody," Lee added.
Lee said 2005 was a "possibility," for release of GM wheat, but he feared acceptance would not be in place much earlier.
"The industry has been put on guard by the StarLink situation," said Wanzek. "We've invested a lot of money over the years in trying to market our wheat. We don't want to lose our customers."
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