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Farmers oppose genetically-modified wheat
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Grain farmers are debating the wisdom of introducing a genetically-modified form of wheat. Monsanto is researching a GM wheat, but says it will work to address concerns about it before releasing it. (Photo courtesy of USDA)
Farmers' love affair with genetically-modified crops is growing. The latest debate is over a new genetically-modified wheat variety, which is being developed by Monsanto. Monsanto is one of the largest distributors of high-tech crops. But farmers are urging Monsanto to keep Roundup Ready wheat in the laboratory.

Moorhead, Minn. — Roundup Ready wheat is being developed at universities in Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota. Mohammed Mergoum, a hard red spring wheat breeder at North Dakota State University, is one of the researchers working with the genetically-modified wheat. The GM wheat is grown in a separate greenhouse that's off limits to visitors. The seeds will soon be planted in test plots at undisclosed locations. These precautions are designed to prevent the genetically-modified plants from crossbreeding with other wheat varieties.

"We are very careful," says Mergoum. "We try to grow that wheat where there is no wheat around it. We have to monitor that site at least two years. That means we go there every month and pull out and destroy anything that grows there."

Mergoum must have approval from the federal government to take seeds from the greenhouse to a field site. And the seed must be kept in a locked container.

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Image NDSU greenhouse

Monsanto is seeking government approval to sell Roundup Ready wheat to farmers. But farmers aren't sure they want it.

Tom Anderson grows wheat a few miles south of Moorhead. He would save money by growing Roundup Ready wheat, because it would need fewer expensive herbicides to control weeds.

But Tom Anderson hopes Roundup Ready wheat stays off the market -- not because Anderson opposes genetically modified wheat. Instead, he doesn't want to lose important markets in Japan and Europe. Those governments say they won't buy genetically-modified wheat.

"Every one out of two bushels on my farm has to go somewhere besides the United States," says Anderson. "It has to be exported in order to make this thing work economically on the farm. And it's already on the edge of not working."

Tom Anderson says losing export markets would be a disaster for the United States wheat industry.

"We cannot release this stuff until this is generally accepted worldwide, or we're going to be shooting ourselves in the foot in the market," says Anderson. "I'm firmly 100 percent behind the research side of it, but we can't release this until we have worldwide acceptance in the marketplace. We just cannot afford to do that."

We cannot release this stuff until this is generally accepted worldwide, or we're going to be shooting ourselves in the foot in the market.
- Tom Anderson, wheat farmer

Monsanto, which owns Roundup Ready wheat, agrees. Michael Doan, Monsanto's director of industrial affairs, says the herbicide resistant wheat must be deemed safe by government regulators, and accepted by consumers, before it's released for general use.

"We don't want to sell seed to farmers that turns into grain that doesn't have a market," says Doane. "What we think is good for growers is also good for us. We've talked with a number of growers and reiterated our commitment to work with them to establish markets for the grain prior to introducing it. We think that's an important commitment, and one we'll honor."

Monsanto is taking a different approach with Roundup Ready wheat than with other GM crops it has released. The company is actively seeking input from traditional wheat farmers and organic growers.

Monsanto says it wants to establish a protocol to keep genetically-modified wheat from mixing with traditional wheat varieties. But researchers say if GM wheat is widely planted, it will inevitably crossbreed with other wheat varieties.

Cross-breeding is what frightens organic wheat growers. Janet Jacobson, the president of Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, says GM wheat could destroy the organic wheat industry.

"Organic consumers have made it pretty clear they don't want GMOs in their food," says Jacobson. "So if genetically modified wheat is released, contamination issues are inevitable. That means we probably won't be able to market organic wheat." The stakes are huge in North Dakota, which is among the top states in the U.S. for wheat production. This year, North Dakota legislators considered a bill to ban genetically-modified wheat, but the legislation was defeated.

A group of farmers has petitioned U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Venneman to consider the economic impact on farmers before approving Roundup Ready wheat. Monsanto says it has no timeline for releasing the wheat. The company insists it will not sell the herbicide-resistant seeds until the crop is accepted in markets around the world.

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