- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

There’s dancing and singing in the streets of the Land of Biotech Bashers. Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, has announced it will delay commercializing gene-spliced wheat.

“This is great news for the environment, for farmers and consumers,” gushed Greenpeace spokesman Ben Ayliffe. It’s “the end of genetically modified” food, Tony Juniper, director of the green group Friends of the Earth crowed to Reuters. “It is the final nail in the coffin.”

All this brings to mind Mark Twain’s famous remark upon reading his own obituary that “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

In 2003, the global area of biotech crops grew a remarkable 15 percent, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, an even greater expansion than the year before. The “167 million acres was grown by 7 million farmers in 18 countries, an increase from 6 million farmers in 16 countries in 2002,” says an ISAAA report. In the last eight years, the number of biotech crop acres worldwide increased by a staggering fortyfold.

U.S. planted biotech acreage increased 10 percent in 2004.

If Mr. Ayliffe is correct that “The markets are not expanding for GM crops,” farmers must be growing and then burning them just to spite the environmentalists.

But no, “Farmers have made up their minds,” said Clive James, ISAAA chairman and founder. “They continue to rapidly adopt biotech crops because of significant agronomic, economic, environmental and social advantages.”

Perhaps the best evidence the wheat in question, called “Roundup Ready,” is safe is that the single gene Monsanto added to it is also in Monsanto’s biotech soybeans. It gives the plant resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (which Monsanto sells as “Roundup”) and allows fields to be sprayed “over the top” without harming the crops. Not only are those soybeans the world’s most popular biotech crop, they also are 86 percent of all soybeans grown in the United States, and we’ve been eating them eight years. (And have lived to tell the tale.)

So why the shredded wheat?

St. Louis-based Monsanto says the decision was economically based. The biggest problem was that since development began in 1997 wheat acreage in North America has fallen by a fourth. In any case, Monsanto’s wheat investment in the past year was less than 1 percent of the company’s $500 million research and development budget.

But consumer acceptance clearly was a factor.

“Nobody that I’ve talked to in business has the least scientific, technical or food safety objection to biotech wheat,” National Association of Wheat Growers CEO Daren Coppock told me. “But they are concerned with the customer.”

That’s why even some mainstream wheat farming associations opposed it. So far, the vast majority of biotech crops grown have been used for animal consumption or cotton materials. Biotech soybean meal and oil and biotech canola oil are in practically everything we eat, it seems. But they constitute minor ingredients compared to “the staff of life.”

Start with the traditional status of bread and hence wheat, mix in a cup of hysteria from the competing organic farmers and environmentalists, and you get farmer fear that all wheat products would be disparaged.

Monsanto’s move was “a recognition, since wheat is closer to the human food chain, that it’s a lightning-rod issue,” Frank Mitsch, an analyst with Fulcrum Global Partners, told CBS MarketWatch. Further, “The potential for the European Union to reject it [as protectionism disguised as a safety concern] and the farmers who grow it is significant.”

Thus it makes sense for Monsanto to wait until consumer awareness catches up to its wheat, even as it looks to introduce other biotech crops such as potatoes, new types of cotton and corn, tomatoes and rice. It hopes to commercialize the wheat in four to eight years when more biotech traits could be added to the crops.

This could include fungal resistance being developed by Monsanto competitor Syngenta, although Greenpeace struck a blow for “consumer choice” when it sabotaged Syngenta’s first test plot. Others being tested are resistance to viruses and to drought. All four traits could be combined in one plant.

And then? Perhaps genetically engineered wheat will be the “final nail in the coffin” for those spreading anti-biotech hysteria.

Michael Fumento is author of “BioEvolution: How Biotechnology is Changing Our World,” a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and columnist with Scripps Howard News Service.

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