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Biotech Firm Scraps Research on Designer Wheat

Times Staff Writer

Genetically engineered corn and soybeans appear in thousands of processed foods, from salad dressing to ice cream. But a leading biotech company decided Monday that the world was not ready for biotech wheat.

Monsanto Co. has ended eight years of research devoted to developing a more easily tended variety of wheat by splicing the crop with genes from soil bacteria, a petunia plant and a cauliflower virus.

The biotech firm had hoped to introduce its Roundup Ready wheat next spring. The grain was genetically engineered to resist Monsanto’s popular weed killer Roundup so farmers could spray fields without harming their crops. The wheat was supposed to yield a more bountiful harvest, but farmers -- mostly in Montana and North Dakota -- campaigned against it, arguing that consumers would not buy bread or pasta made from manipulated grain. Foreign buyers of American wheat protested as well.

After years of fighting opposition, Monsanto concluded the sales potential for its designer wheat was “less attractive relative to Monsanto’s other commercial priorities,” said Carl M. Casale, an executive vice president.

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“I call it a retreat,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group opposed to genetic engineering.

“For the past 20 years, this industry has touted biotechnology as a tool that would solve world hunger and do just about every other remarkable thing imaginable. Now we see it being used in just three or four crops, and basically for just one purpose -- weed control,” Kimbrell said.

Proponents, however, say farmers like the technology: More than 85% of the soy in the U.S. is genetically engineered. So is nearly half the corn, and three-quarters of the cotton.

Those crops are processed into oils, syrups and thickeners used as ingredients in an estimated 80% of processed food: from margarine to chicken soup, pancake mix to baby formula.

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Monsanto takes that as a sign that shoppers accept the technology.

But some analysts argue that consumers might object if the biotech oils weren’t so well hidden. That’s why they predicted a backlash against modified wheat.

“You read a long list of ingredients in a typical processed food, and people don’t react to that in the same way as they would a loaf of bread in which they know that biotech wheat is the primary ingredient,” said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a nonpartisan research group.

Monsanto spokesman Chris Horner said consumer acceptance had nothing to do with Monday’s decision to end the wheat research, budgeted at $5 million this year. He characterized it as a business move, based on the fact that U.S. and Canadian farmers have been planting less spring wheat in recent years because of low market prices.

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Those farmers have been deeply divided over biotech wheat.

Some feared that America’s top foreign customers, especially Japan, would cancel orders if biotech varieties were introduced. They pointed to the experience of corn growers, who lost $300 million a year, or 4% of their export market, as sales to the European Union fell to zero after they began planting genetically modified varieties. The market has never recovered.

Because half of the U.S. wheat crop is exported worldwide, such a shutdown would be devastating.

But other growers insisted that foreign buyers were bluffing. “Without a doubt” they would have come around, said Greg Daws, president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Assn.

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Daws plants Roundup Ready soy and canola. He doesn’t have to till the soil as much to root out weeds, so he causes less erosion and uses less tractor fuel. He applies a third less herbicide too. He was looking forward to a similar boon from biotech wheat.

“I don’t think city people realize how important this technology they’re trying to stop could be for wildlife, for the environment and for agriculture,” he said.

Daws agrees with biotechnology critics on one point: Monsanto’s decision will have broad implications for the industry. “It’s definitely going to send a negative signal,” he said.

The most anticipated products in Monsanto’s pipeline, now that the wheat project has been scrapped, are soybeans and canola that produce more heart-healthy oils.

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They have been developed not through gene-splicing but through conventional breeding: Selecting plants with the most desirable traits and cross-pollinating them, generation after generation.

North Dakota farmer Todd Leake finds that heartening -- and hopes it proves that building a better grain does not require importing DNA.

“People have been breeding wheat for a century here in North Dakota,” he said. “The most useful traits are the traits within the wheat itself.”


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