Monsanto wants grower backing before it continues with transgenic wheat research

By Carey Gillam

Monsanto says biotech wheat approvals on track

January 26, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Carey Gillam, Reuters: Monsanto Co. said on Monday its genetically modified wheat seed should soon receive its first regulatory approvals from the U.S. government, and that will help it promote the biotech crop to regulatory agencies in other countries.

The Food and Drug Administration, which is assessing the safety of Monsanto's Roundup Ready herbicide-resistant wheat for human and animal consumption, is expected to approve the product "in the near future," said Monsanto wheat industry affairs director Michael Doane.

"That will be the first regulatory assurance on safety," Doane said. "That is important. We will use that for demonstration of safety to submit to other countries."

Monsanto's biotech wheat would be the world's first genetically modified crop to be used primarily for human food.

The St. Louis, Missouri-based company said it is still awaiting a key approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture after recently responding to questions raised by the agency.

Monsanto officials were attending the annual U.S. wheat industry convention in Atlanta, Georgia, giving wheat growers a progress report on biotech wheat and seeking their help in gaining its acceptance in the market.

The company has said 2004 will be a critical year in winning favor for the controversial product. It plans a biotech wheat newsletter for growers which will be mailed in the United States and Canada in early February.

Through industry groups and surveys, U.S. wheat growers have generally shown enthusiasm for Monsanto's technology. The bioengineered spring wheat variety now under development is designed to help farmers control weeds and reap higher yields.

But growers are concerned about the potential loss of sales to overseas customers. Several major importers avoid buying genetically modified foods, and they have warned that they would buy elsewhere if biotech wheat is approved in the United States.

ATLANTA, Georgia, January 26, 2004, CropChoice news/Reuters, 01/24/04: U.S. wheat industry leaders must fully embrace Monsanto Co's . planned genetically modified wheat and assist the company in gaining market acceptance or the leading biotech developer may abandon its wheat research efforts, a Monsanto official said on Saturday.

"If full farmer support is not pledged, that could be construed as shifting our focus to other crops," said Monsanto's director of wheat industry affairs, Michael Doane.

"As we look at our business initiatives and our scarce resources ... we need to understand the level of farmer support," Doane said.

He made his comments at a meeting with top wheat industry players at the industry's annual convention in Atlanta.

The request by Monsanto was also spelled out in a letter given to officials of the farmer-controlled National Association of Wheat Growers, and to U.S. Wheat Associates, which handles international marketing for U.S. wheat.

The letter asks that for "public acknowledgment of your full support for the timely de-regulation and commercialization of Roundup Ready wheat;" "strong alignment" in support from "state and allied constituents;" and asks that farm leaders develop and execute a strategic plan to "satisfactorily address public acceptance issues" in the U.S. and abroad.

Public acceptance for biotech wheat has been a hot-button issue as Monsanto has moved forward with regulatory applications for what would be the world's first genetically modified crop primarily used for human food.

U.S. Wheat Associates officials have repeatedly warned that many top foreign buyers of U.S. wheat have threatened to stop buying from the United States if a biotech wheat is brought to market.

Opposition is particularly strong in the European Union, which bought more than $220 million of U.S. wheat in 2002.

Domestic millers and other American users of U.S. wheat have also expressed reservations about buying Monsanto's biotech wheat, which has been genetically altered to resist applications of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.

"I understand where Monsanto is coming from. ... At some point you have to decide whether or not you consider funding research," said Lance Hagen, executive director of North Dakota Grain Growers Association. "But they have to understand where growers are coming from, too."

Duane Grant, a member of a wheat industry biotech committee that has been monitoring Monsanto's plans, said there were concerns that had to be addressed before the industry could fully partner with Monsanto.

"I'm not comfortable saying I'm ready to go arm in arm with Monsanto," Grant said. "We have to be careful not to let our policies get dictated around a specific product."

Doane said the company was not asking growers to do anything more than it had asked of soybean and corn growers when it introduced biotech products to those producers.

"We have a pipeline that is very full right now and a lot of those applications are in crops other than wheat," Doane said. "We need a timely response."

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