Hot debate over biotech wheat

FDA's review of product is expected soon

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Friday, December 5, 2003

At a hip bakery in midtown, customers choose from baskets of preservative-free freshly baked bread -- rustic French, multi-grain and honey wheat, to name a few.

But the day is nearing when Andy Smith, the Bread Store's general manager, will have a different choice to make with greater social, political and economic implications: to bake with genetically engineered wheat or continue with conventional varieties.

In a critical step forward for biotech wheat, the Food and Drug Administration soon is expected to complete its safety and nutrition review of Monsanto's latest product, hard red spring wheat -- a favorite of bakers -- that is genetically engineered to withstand doses of the popular weedkiller Roundup.

The FDA's review, while voluntary on the company's part, is the first regulatory sign-off for a product that still is likely a few years from being grown in this country.

But already, the bread loaf has become a battleground between anti-biotech forces and Monsanto, the world's largest maker of genetically modified seeds.

Wheat will be the first test of the company's new list of promises to protect buyers and farmers before it commercializes Roundup Ready wheat.

Skeptics are quick to question how long a publicly traded company that must answer to investors can put precaution before profit.

Wheat also represents a maturing of the biotech industry as it moves from products used for animal feed and processed food ingredients such as corn syrup to grains such as wheat and rice that are mainstays in kitchens around the world.

"Wheat is different," said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.

"It's the communion wafer and the matzo crackers. It's the staff of life and the place where food stops being just about nutrition and takes on a sort of symbolic role."

Concerns about biotechnology range widely, from the potential spread of biotech traits into other plants to the ethics of tinkering with life forms and to the implications of giving a handful of big biotech companies control of the world's staple crops.

The benefits may include easier farm management by reducing the number and toxicity of herbicides applied to crops. Chemical weed control also allows growers to till less, which reduces fuel use and soil erosion.

If wheat's rollout goes well, next up is a string of biotech food products that promise consumer benefits such as longer shelf life, along with pharmaceutical compounds grown in plants.

Herbicide-resistant wheat isn't likely to be an immediate issue for the growers of 700,000 acres of wheat in California, because the hard red spring wheat is grown mostly in Montana and the Dakotas.

But given how quickly scientifically modified genes defy efforts to contain them, the implications of biotech wheat reach all corners of the country.

Wheat's fate also has ramifications for California's most economically important food grain -- rice -- for which companies also are developing herbicide-resistant varieties.

The state's rice growers have been cautious about biotechnology largely because of buyer resistance in Japan and fears about compromising the state's organic rice industry.

University of California, Davis, agriculture economics professor Colin Carter warns both rice and wheat growers to be careful about rejecting biotech crops that may reduce chemicals and costs.

"This technology will be commercialized somewhere, most likely in the developing world, and you have to worry about maintaining competitiveness," he said.

At more than 50 million acres, wheat is the third-largest crop in the country behind corn and soybeans, both leaders in the first wave of genetically engineered crops released in the mid-1990s.

Farmers, grain companies and customers -- most notably in Europe -- felt they'd been blindsided by big biotech companies who were moving genes between species in ways not possible with traditional cross-breeding.

And before anyone could stop them, biotech genes from the initial round of crops contaminated some conventional and organic crops through pollen flow, seed mix-ups and segregation systems that weren't designed to strictly separate varieties.

Those failures served as a warning for the U.S. wheat industry, where major associations support biotechnology development but acknowledge that wheat buyer reluctance may prove more important than farmers' desire for weed-free crops.

Biotech companies learned from anti-biotech backlash in the late 1990s that they had to find ways to excite buyers about their products, address their concerns about food safety and help develop segregation systems.

"There has been something of a change in terms of business practices across the industry that I think will make the launch of new technology now better than in the mid-90s," said Christopher Novak, spokesman for Swiss seed and chemical giant Syngenta.

"We know that consumer acceptance ... is going to be critical."

Syngenta is developing a wheat genetically engineered to resist fungal infections called fusarium. Annual losses from the fungi have reached $1 billion.

And company officials are working with the wheat industry to identify potential markets even though fungus-resistant wheat won't be released for another four years at the earliest.

Monsanto also is trying to woo the wheat industry with a six-point pledge for Roundup Ready wheat, issued in January 2002. It includes a promise to wait to release the product until it gains regulatory approval not just in the United States, but in Canada and Japan as well.

The company also promised to identify buyers who wanted the product and to have in place "appropriate" grain handling protocols to "provide a meaningful choice for customers" between biotech and conventional grain.

"We understand that not everyone wants to grow biotech wheat, but there are growers who desperately want this product," said Monsanto spokeswoman Shannon Troughton in St. Louis.

Monsanto's pledge will test company officials' willingness to keep a product out of the market at the same time they are cutting jobs and scrambling to make Wall Street happy.

In Canada, for instance, the government-backed wheat marketing board has harshly criticized Roundup Ready wheat, saying it doesn't trust Monsanto to look out for farmers' interests.

Monsanto officials say they remain committed to the wheat pledge but won't speculate about when the product would be commercialized given that it still must pass an environmental review by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"We have heard the concerns that some people have, and we are going about introducing this in the most responsible way possible," Troughton said.

At his Sacramento bread store, Smith remains curious about such basics as the quality of flour made from biotech wheat for baking as well as its price.

A small percentage of Bread Store patrons care deeply about environmental issues -- some customers, for instance, ask about vegan products. They are the ones likely to reject bread made from Roundup Ready wheat, if they knew they were eating it.

Smith also remains mindful of last summer's protests against genetically engineered foods, when an estimated 2,000 people marched through Sacramento streets during a conference on the topic.

"As for the average guy coming in and getting a turkey sandwich on sourdough," he said, "I am not sure he'd be concerned."


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


Related graphic:

Landmark biotech crops