GM Wheat Portends Disaster for Great Plains

Todd Leake has been growing hard red spring wheat at his farm in eastern North Dakota for 25 years. The 1,000 acres he plants with hard red spring wheat represents half his total crop. Like most farmers in the area, more than half his crop is exported for sale in markets in Europe, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and other foreign countries.

If Monsanto and other biotech companies succeed in their push to allow genetically modified (called GE, GM or GMO) wheat on the market, Leake is afraid he may see his profits based on decades of work go down the drain.

There are a variety of reasons that environmentalists, farmers, health activists, "globophobics" and others oppose the development of GE or GM crops. People fear the control it gives Monsanto and other multinational corporations over farmers' livelihoods. Many worry that the health and environmental effects of genetically modified foods are still unknown, and that they could be harmful to our land and our bodies.

Farmers worry about cross-contamination from neighbors' GM crops. Biotech companies marketing GM seeds have the right to enter a farmer's field and test for their seed strains. They can fine farmers thousands of dollars if their crops test positive for genetically modified strains that the farmer didn't purchase, even though crops can easily become contaminated by pollen from a neighbor's field.

Farmers are also not allowed to save seeds from year to year as they traditionally have done with non-GM crops. When a farmer plants a crop from GM seeds, he is required to purchase a new batch of seeds each year. Again companies can fine farmers huge amounts for this practice. Brothers Paul and John Mayfield, for example, were recently fined $75,000 by Monsanto for replanting 800 bushels of GM soybean seeds they had saved.

But on top of all these concerns, there is an even simpler reason to oppose GM wheat, according to many farmers in the Great Plains, where Monsanto is pushing to introduce genetically modified hard red spring wheat for commercial sale.

Regardless of whether the potential negative health and environmental effects are real or imagined, much of the world is certain that it doesn't want GM foods. Very certain. And this fact could only have devastating economic implications for American farmers.

The European Union and various countries in Asia have all made it clear that they don't want any genetically modified crops, and they test incoming shipments to make sure they don't get any. Given the frequency and ease of cross-pollination, farmers say, virtually the only way for a country to ensure they are not getting any GM foods is to stop buying them from the U.S. all together.

"It's basically impossible to segregate it," said Leake, who is a member of the grassroots farmers group the Dakota Resource Council. "The general consensus is that there will be cross-pollination from neighbors' fields. And it can get contaminated not only in the field, but from the seed stock, from handling the equipment that had GM seeds in it, from mixing in the [grain] elevator."

A study quoted in the new book, "Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture," noted that only 20 percent of grain elevators surveyed in the U.S. have separate facilities for GM and non-GM soybeans. So even if a farmer were to avoid the economic pressure to buy GM wheat and to avoid cross-contamination from neighbors, his crops could still get contaminated in the elevator and test positive for genetic modification once they reach the market.

Monsanto spokesman Mark Buckingham said the company has made a commitment to develop technologies to prevent contamination and to make sure farmers continue to have choices about what kind of seeds they buy.

"We have committed not to introduce [GM wheat] on the market until we have different varieties to offer, so a farmer who wants Roundup Ready wheat can get it and one who wants traditional wheat can get that," said Buckingham. While Buckingham didn't offer a specific answer to fears about contamination from GM crops, farmers say the risk is very much on their minds.

"I believe it's inevitable it would escape," said Sarah Vogel, the former commissioner of agriculture in North Dakota (1989 to 1996) and currently a lawyer in private practice. "It's really a bad idea."

Right now GM wheat is being grown in research plots in North Dakota with test permits from the federal Animal, Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The GM wheat furthest along in production is Roundup Ready, meaning it can resist the Roundup herbicide sold by Monsanto, which kills just about all weeds. In the future other types of GM wheat and other crops would likely also be introduced, including plants with "nutriceuticals and pharmaceuticals," meaning with various drugs and nutrients built in.

While several major companies, including Syngenta, Novartis and Aventis, have been developing and marketing various GM crops, St. Louis-based Monsanto is clearly the industry leader.

"They talk about things like insulin bred into the plant for diabetics," said Leake. "That's just scary to me."

Already, eight of the top 11 countries to which the U.S. sells hard red spring wheat have regulations against GM wheat or labeling restrictions regarding GM foods that the U.S. can't comply with. Staffers at the Dakota Resource Council say the organization has gotten letters from Belgium and other countries' regulatory committees saying they won't buy any U.S. wheat if there is even a possibility of contamination.

Monsanto has already introduced GM corn, potatoes, canola, soybeans and other crops in the U.S., Canada and other countries. Monsanto markets hundreds of different varieties of Roundup Ready soybeans, making up at least 60 percent of the U.S. market.

"Our Roundup Ready soybeans have been a tremendous success," said Buckingham. "It has taken seven years since their introduction, but now 75 percent of soybean crops are Roundup Ready. We see a similar thing with wheat. It will take some years for the technologies to catch on, but we believe it will be successful for everyone involved."

Wheat, specifically hard red spring wheat, is one of the next on the list for potential introduction. Originally Monsanto said it would introduce the GM wheat in 2003, but now it has pushed back the date to 2005 or later. Buckingham said the company is still "years" away from offering any GM wheat for commercial sale.

In recent releases Monsanto said it was delaying the release until it obtained consumer and farmer acceptance of the product. "But that doesn't really mean anything," said Leake. "They're still pursuing the deregulation they need while telling people they're delaying. They're really right on track."

About half of the country's hard red spring wheat is grown in North Dakota, with 60 to 70 percent of those crops being exported. In parts of Montana and North Dakota, the harsh plains conditions mean hard red spring wheat is pretty much the only crop that is grown. Therefore, the introduction of GM wheat and subsequent loss of European and Asian markets could be devastating for the economy of the entire region.

Buckingham said that Monsanto "has a commitment to winning regulatory approval in various countries so before we sell seed, we know there will be a market for it."

When asked what countries the company was working to gain regulatory approval in, he said, "Mainly the USA, which is the biggest single consumer of wheat."

Legislation seeking to curb the introduction of GM wheat has already been proposed in both Montana and North Dakota. In North Dakota last year, the GM wheat moratorium bill passed the House Agricultural Committee. In the Senate Agricultural Committee the bill was basically killed by North Dakota Sen. Terry Wanzek, chair of the agricultural committee, and transformed from a ban on GM wheat to a call for a study.

Many Great Plains farmers think lobbying by the industry and backing by President Bush resulted in the failure of the moratorium. They note that a shift in the legislative climate occurred after Bush made a visit to Fargo to meet with legislators. Despite pressure from Monsanto and the rest of the biotech lobby, there is still strong bipartisan political opposition to GM crops.

Legislators in North Dakota are looking at two separate bills related to GM wheat for the coming session: a moratorium bill spearheaded by State Rep. Phil Mueller that would prevent the commercial introduction of GM wheat pending more studies; and a liability bill headed by State Sen. Bill Bowman that would hold Monsanto or other biotech companies financially responsible for the outcome of farmers' GM crops.

Currently, there is basically no liability for the companies that market GM seeds. Buckingham declined to comment on the liability issue. Vogel, who testified before the North Dakota legislature about her opposition to GM wheat, said that, "the contract farmers have to sign when they buy GM seeds basically releases Monsanto from virtually every product liability, warranty, everything. I've never seen anyone sell something and remove themselves from any future liability for it. It's like they're saying, 'If you can't sell this, don't come whining to us, just eat it.'"

Vogel said that at the hearings, Monsanto was given four hours to present its position while a "roomful of citizens" got only about 45 minutes. "A lot of citizens weren't allowed to testify," she said. "Some members of the legislature just don't want to hear from them."

Farmers and advocates say they hope state legislation like that which will be proposed in North Dakota when the session starts in January 2003 will end up having national effects.

Currently, the USDA has not taken a stand on GM crops except to maintain the position that they are "substantially equivalent" to standard crops and therefore don't merit special regulation or labeling. A lawyer who asked his name not be used said Monsanto will likely argue that state legislation against GM wheat would violate commerce clauses against state regulation of industry. Buckingham declined to comment on possible legislation.

In her testimony Vogel compared the potential impact of GM wheat to an outbreak in Arizona of a fungal disease from India called "Karnal bunt." After the outbreak, many companies refused to buy any crops from Arizona farmers. "If Karnal bunt or GMO wheat is found in our wheat, we lose most if not all of our hard-fought export markets," she told the legislature. "A farmer said to me the other day, 'I just don't grow crops I can't sell.'"

Farmers fear that if GM hard red spring wheat is introduced, GM strains of other types of wheat would be close behind, posing the same economic danger to the market. Wheat is the third most prevalent crop in the U.S. behind corn and soybeans, with wheat fields covering a full four percent of the country's land, according to "Fatal Harvest," for a total of more than 60 million acres.

Leake, Vogel and other farmers agree that while the health and environmental effects of GM wheat would take longer to track, the economic impact would be almost immediate. The loss of European and Asian markets would be compounded by the fact that Canada, which doesn't allow GM wheat, would probably swoop in and market its wheat as an alternative to the U.S.

"There are all kinds of ethical and scientific arguments against GM wheat, but on a pure economic level it would have a huge effect," Vogel said. "To allow the widespread growing of GM wheat is basically asking for an embargo of all exports. The price would fall to the price of feed wheat; there would be a tremendous devaluation."

She added that many farmers could go unpaid if their crops don't sell, and grain elevators, combine equipment and other machines could be rendered useless and even demolished because of contamination from GM crops. "It could be an economic disaster," she said. "I see nothing good about GM wheat."

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for many publications, including the Washington Post, Chicago Ink, the Chicago Reader and In These Times.

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