- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

Farm and environmental groups this week asked the U.S. Agriculture Department to stop commercial approval of genetically modified wheat, citing concern that export markets would be lost over health and consumer worries in other parts of the world.
"The commercial introduction of genetically engineered wheat varieties will have a dramatic economic impact on the viability of U.S. wheat exports," said the petition filed by the Dakota Resource Council, the National Family Farm Coalition, the Northern Plains Resource Council and other local politicians and advocacy groups.
The complaint targets Monsanto, a St. Louis company seeking approval of a genetically modified wheat variety that is resistant to a company-made herbicide.
Monsanto says gaining regulatory approval is only one step in a process that includes lining up markets and buyers before introducing a product to the market.
"We understand there is concern, but there is also opportunity," said Michael Doan, Monsanto's director of industry affairs.
The 15-nation European Union has maintained a moratorium on genetically modified products since 1998.
Bush administration officials have attacked the EU moratorium, saying it is not based on scientific fact, and threatened to file a case against it at the World Trade Organization. The officials also have warned of a "chilling effect" against biotech products in other parts of the world based on EU scare tactics.
EU rules in development would require genetically modified products to be labeled as such. For U.S. exports, that could mean all wheat would have to be labeled, because there is no system to segregate biotech from non-biotech products, this week's petition warned.
Monsanto counters that biotech products have had tremendous success in worldwide markets. About two-thirds of U.S. soybeans and one-third of corn are genetically modified to withstand pesticides, resist pests or take on other traits, American Farm Bureau figures show, indicating widespread acceptance among U.S. growers.
But the handful of U.S. farm and environment groups this week said more work needs to be done before biotech-engineered wheat is produced for export.
"Buyers overseas are saying 'we're not going to buy,'" said Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety, who filed the petition on the groups' behalf. "Overseas markets will probably dry up."
The groups warn that up to half of the U.S. export market for wheat could be lost if a genetically modified product is grown in the United States.
The groups want the Agriculture Department to hold off on deregulation until it assesses the economic and environmental impacts of the new crop.
The Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is in the initial phase of deregulating the biotech wheat for commercial use, said spokesman Ed Curlett. The petition has no immediate impact on the process, but APHIS will review it and respond, he said.
In addition to overseas market worries, the petition cites concerns regarding use of herbicides, the impact on migratory birds that use wheat fields as habitats and contamination of non-genetically engineered wheat through pollination.
The petition does not force the Agriculture Department to withhold approval, but makes it aware of the groups' concerns, Mr. Mendelson said.
The Agriculture Department has approved 55 genetically modified crops for commercial use since 1992, Mr. Curlett said.

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