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GM wheat: an unacceptable crop?


Europeans are not the only consumers wary about genetically modified foods and the notion of GM wheat. A Reuters report on Thursday elaborates on how Asian buyers of US wheat remain largely opposed to the planned introduction of genetically modified wheat, according to a new report by the leading marketing organisation for US wheat. The report could send further shivers down the spines of US farmers of GM crops.

US Wheat Associates found in its survey of wheat buyers, millers and users that "there is currently an overwhelming rejection" of the biotech "Roundup Ready" wheat plant that Monsanto has developed. The plant is resistant to Monsanto's herbicide, allowing for easy weed treatment.

Monsanto said it was not impressed with the survey. "While dialogue is taking place, deliberately generating controversy about acceptance seems to run counter to US Wheat's stated purpose of promoting opportunities for US growers," said Mark Buckingham, spokesman for Monsanto.

St. Louis-based Monsanto has been working to roll out the GM spring wheat by 2005 in the United States and Canada, but has responded to grower concerns by saying it will wait until there is adequate customer acceptance for the product.

Major wheat importing countries like Japan and the European Union have stressed that consumer opposition to genetically modified wheat would override scientific assurances that the biotech grain was safe. Opposition forces question whether the biotech wheat would be truly safe, both for humans and the environment.

The US Wheat Associates report found that all representatives for Chinese, Korean and Japanese wheat buyers surveyed said they would not buy or use Roundup Ready wheat.

The report quoted the Japanese Food Agency, a major buyer of US wheat, as saying that "Japanese flour millers declare firmly not to use any insecure wheat which may or may not contain GM wheat. Japan might have to switch to a different country which does not produce any GM wheat".

Japan, the largest buyer of US wheat this year, typically purchases about 3 million tonnes of US wheat annually.

Eighty-two per cent of buyers from Taiwan and 78 per cent of buyers from South Asia said they would reject the wheat.

The opposition remained strong among the Asian respondents even if their own country's governments approved GM wheat. Japan interests voiced the strongest opposition, with 100 per cent of the Japanese users surveyed indicating that "regardless of government approval, contracts will stipulate no adventitious presence of GM wheat."

Many fear that although Monsanto is currently focusing on introducing its technology in a spring wheat, the issue could hurt sales of all US wheat if international buyers grow wary of US wheat supplies.

"US Wheat Associates' work with buyers in Asia and elsewhere gives ample warning that other wheat classes - and other wheat originations - are at risk of rejection," said US Wheat spokeswoman Dawn Forsythe.

The Asian interests indicated that a certification process would need to be established to assure them that purchases would be free of GM wheat if they were to continue to buy US wheat.

Though the recent survey dealt only with Asian markets, opposition has been heard from around the world.In August, Italy's biggest miller, Grandi Molini Italiani, said it would refuse to import genetically modified wheat or any wheat from countries where GM wheat is grown.

Monsanto has been working hard to win over the grain industry, including helping develop grain handling techniques to segregate GM wheat from non-GM wheat. It has also created a Wheat Industry Advisory Committee to seek input from farmers, state wheat growers organisations and others.

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