Opponents threaten to push for biotech labels

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Tom Stahl and Joe Ludeman, both fourth-generation Waterville, Wash., wheat farmers, hold a copy of petition against genetically modified wheat that they circulated last winter. They collected more than 1,000 signatures and are considering a new petition drive.

Three farmers say biotech wheat will destroy Japanese market


Capital Press

WATERVILLE, Wash. -- Feeling their 1,012 petition signatures to stop genetically modified wheat have been ignored, three Waterville wheat growers may start a new petition drive this winter seeking labeling of any foods containing such products sold in the U.S.

"At a minimum, we'd like to see labeling, but we really want Monsanto to stop developing GMO wheat," said Tom Stahl, one of the three growers. Labeling would bring about the demise of biotech products because people increasingly don't want them, he said.

The farmers are concerned that if biotech wheat gets started in north central Washington it could torpedo sales to Japan, the largest consumer of the region's wheat. They're also concerned about potential health risks of biotech products.

Japan is opposed to genetically modified wheat but has accepted some modified canola, Tom Mick, CEO of the Washington Grain Alliance in Spokane, has said.

Stahl, Joe Ludeman and Lynn Polson formed the Committee to Save Our Farm Markets last Nov. 20 and gathered the 1,012 signatures during the winter, mainly from posting copies of their petition in businesses in Waterville and Wenatchee. Some signatures came from other parts of the state. They say they could have gotten more with a better effort.

The petition asks national and state associations to warn farmers against growing genetically modified wheat unless customers agree to buy it. The petition also seeks investigation into the health safety of such wheat and opposes open-air test plots, saying pollen would spread and contaminate conventional wheat.

"If we contaminate our land, warehouses and shipping facilities with genetically modified wheat and our customers reject it, then we could lose our markets and go out of business," the petition states.

North central Washington produces about 13.5 million bushels of dryland soft white winter and spring wheat annually. About 85 percent of it is exported to Asia, mainly Japan.

Scientists can modify genes in wheat and other organisms to exhibit certain desired traits. Wheat could be modified to tolerate glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup, which would allow farmers to kill weeds without killing the wheat. Wheat cultivars could also be modified to be poisonous to pests, resistant to drought or contain other traits.

Monsanto Co., of St. Louis, Mo., has developed and sold much of the genetically modified seed available, including corn and soybeans. It was working on wheat but dropped it in 2004 in the face of grower and trade organization opposition. It resumed work in 2009 with support from the National Association of Wheat Growers and wheat organizations in Canada and Australia.

Stahl believes Monsanto lobbied NAWG board members to soften their opposition.

In an e-mail response to Capital Press questions, Monsanto spokeswoman Kelli Powers said the company has a good relationship with NAWG but isn't sure it lobbied its board members. She said there has been growing acceptance and interest in biotech wheat to meet future demands and that nine wheat industry organizations in the U.S., Canada and Australia support increased breeding and biotechnology. A NAWG survey in February 2009 showed more than 75 percent of growers support the use of tools like biotechnology to improve wheat, she said.

Monsanto's near-term focus is on breeding better varieties and it does not expect to introduce biotech wheat until the next decade, Powers said in the e-mail.

In June and July, the Committee to Save Our Farm Markets delivered copies of the petition to Central Washington Washington Grain Growers in Waterville, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, the National Association of Wheat Growers, U.S. Wheat Associates, the Washington Grain Commission, Capital Press and Wheat Life Magazine.

Tony Viebrock, board president of Central Washington Grain Growers, announced at the co-op's annual meeting in June that the board made an informal decision to discourage farmers from growing biotech wheat or hosting test plots until customers agree to buy it, Stahl said.

"I asked Viebrock for a copy of the minutes and he said the decision was informal and not contained in the minutes," Stahl said.

Viebrock verified that and said he thinks the board will leave its position unofficial.

The other organizations did not respond. Stahl called it "thundering silence."

"There appears to be a certain timidity in facing down Monsanto and opposing the National Association of Wheat Growers ... which has endorsed GMO wheat," Stahl said.

Rather than timidity, Viebrock said, growers and organizations are interested in using biotech products to get grassy weeds out of wheat and improve production. But they are concerned about losing markets.

NAWG spokeswoman Melissa George Kessler pointed to the organization's principles supporting biotech wheat with plans for minimal market disruption.

Stahl said that allergies and other health problems are attributed to genetically modified organisms by the Institute for Responsible Technology, an organization opposed to genetically modified organisms.

Viebrock said there's also information about health benefits from genetically modified organisms.

Ludeman said he initially was most concerned about the potential market loss but has grown more interested in the health aspects. He said he doesn't like a few giant companies controlling seed production.

"We don't understand the process of altering genes enough to unleash it on the world," Stahl said. "Genes can't be recalled. We're playing God without the wisdom or power of God to fix what we do."

About 72 percent of Oregon voters rejected a 2002 initiative that would have required labeling food that had genetically modified ingredients.

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