Biotech wheat program shelved

Growers' resistance proves too much for Monsanto.

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Tuesday, May 11, 2004

In a major setback for the agricultural biotech industry, the Monsanto Co. shelved genetically engineered wheat on Monday.

The herbicide-tolerant wheat had been expected to be the next big biotech crop, but it met stiff resistance among wheat growers in Canada and the Northern Plains states who were afraid buyers would shun it.

Consumer, organic and environmental groups leveraged those fears, demonized Monsanto and generated public concern about the unknown aspects of genetic engineering - for instance, its long-term environmental and human health impacts.

"It's ... possibly a big tide-turning event in biotechnology," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director at the Center for Food Safety, a consumer watchdog group in Washington, D.C. "It's a significant retreat by them and shows the power of market rejection."

Monsanto's decision signals that demand for novel food crops remains thin.

After extraordinary initial successes, the ag biotech industry has hit a series of speed bumps, including a March ban on biotech crops in Mendocino County and, in April, a delay in increasing California's production of a rice that grows drug compounds.

In California, anti-biotech forces are studying how vocal wheat farmers allied with national groups to turn back a multinational giant.

"That's the lesson," said Renata Brillinger, campaign coordinator of Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, which is preparing for a battle over herbicide-tolerant rice being developed for California by Bayer CropScience. "Rice producers can look to that same kind of process."

Monday's announcement also highlighted the riskiness of investing tens of millions of dollars in products that take several years to bring to market. Roundup Ready wheat was designed so farmers could kill weeds with Monsanto's signature herbicide without hurting the wheat, a trick already available in corn, canola and soybeans.

Monsanto spokesman Chris Horner said the spring wheat growing area has been shrinking since 1997, when the company launched its Roundup Ready wheat program, and no longer offers an attractive market. "That really impacts the economics of this product," he said.

While existing biotech crops - most are used for animal feed or are invisible components of processed food - have drawn limited protest, some consumers had a more visceral, negative reaction to tinkering with wheat, regarded worldwide as a basic element of life.

Distaste was especially evident in Europe, raising concerns that U.S. and Canadian wheat exports would be threatened if the crop was released.

Monsanto called an end to the Roundup Ready wheat breeding and field research program, which cost less than $5 million this fiscal year, or about 1 percent of the company's annual $500 million research budget.

Despite concerns about exporting biotech crops, U.S. farmers largely embrace biotech as a way to stay ahead of foreign competitors. Three national wheat organizations issued a combined press release Monday supporting Monsanto's decision but inviting the company back when the time is right.

"Biotechnology (is) the next tool in the toolbox," said Mark Gage, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. "Roundup Ready wheat is on the shelf, and there are other traits coming forward that will find their place in 21st century wheat production."

California's relatively small wheat industry will not be affected because Monsanto was developing a variety of spring wheat grown mostly in the Dakotas, where debate over the crop was hottest.

However, the decision will ripple across the state where biotech was born with a longer-lasting tomato in 1994.

While anti-biotech activists plan resistance similar to their successful wheat campaign, Monsanto's new focus emphasizes the kind of work done at the company's Calgene campus in Davis. Calgene scientists are among those trying to develop healthier cooking oils from biotech crops - products that might eventually create a positive buzz among consumers.


About the Writer The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or mflee@sacbee.com.


Related link:


• Development of Roundup ready wheat deferred, Monsanto