Groups against bioengineered wheat mobilize

by Josh Sosland
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WASHINGTON — A few weeks after organizations in the United States, Canada and Australia issued a joint statement supporting simultaneous release of bioengineered wheat in all three countries, opposition has emerged from other groups in those countries.

The opposing statement was signed by 15 groups, including Greenpeace. In the United States, the opponents include the National Family Farm Coalition, Western Organization of Resource Councils, Center for Food Safety and Organic Consumers Association.

In a summary statement, the groups assert that consumers have rejected bioengineered wheat globally, a claim that is not substantiated in their document but which the groups said "culminated in Monsanto’s 2004 withdrawal of requests" to commercialize bioengineered wheat.

"In light of our existing experience with genetic engineering and recognizing the global consumer rejection of genetically engineered wheat, we restate our definitive opposition to G.E. wheat and our commitment to stopping the commercialization of G.E. grains in our wheat crops," the groups said. "We are committed to working with farmers, civil society groups and indigenous peoples across the globe as we travel the road toward global food sovereignty."

The groups presented their statement in six points:

1 — "Wheat is an ancient grain that is vital for meeting the nutritional needs of many societies and has deep religious significance in many cultures," they said. Noting that with rice and corn, wheat is one of three major staple crops worldwide, the groups went on to note the "tremendous diversity of wheat varieties, many of which are adapted to the soil and climate conditions of certain regions of the world." Preserving this diversity is crucial, the groups said.

2 — "The remarkable achievements in wheat breeding the farmers and scientists have managed over generations have not involved genetic engineering or patenting," the statement said. Currently, no bioengineered traits are in the pipeline for wheat promising basic agronomic improvements, they added. They suggested the only bioengineered trait currently is one with tolerance to glyphosate (Roundup). "Not only does this technology contribute nothing to feeding the world, genetic engineering is a direct threat to global food security," the groups said.

3 — Seeking to counter assertions that the lack of bioengineered wheat on the market has reduced area planted to wheat, the groups claimed the opposite. "A March 2009 Statistics Canada survey of farmers in western Canada found that farmers plan to increase acreage of wheat, barley and peas, crops for which there are not G.E. varieties," they said.

4 — An excessive focus by farmers and breeders and economies of scale and yield have resulted in higher input costs and lower net income for growers, the groups said.

5 — Warning that genetic engineering is a "highly imprecise technology," the statement said agriculture biotechnology is inadequately regulated by governments and that the effects of bioengineered crops on soil health, non-target insects and human health are inadequately studied. The statement went on to distinguish bioengineered wheat from other crops already on the market.

"Commercial G.E. crops have so far been limited to crops used primarily for feed, oil and fiber and have thus not been subjected to national labeling requirements in many countries," the statement said. "G.E. wheat, however, would primarily be used for human consumption and food products directed from genetically engineered wheat would be labeled as G.E. in many countries across the world. Additionally, if G.E. wheat is released commercially, contamination would be inevitable and markets would view all wheat as produced from these areas as G.E. unless proven to be non-G.E."

6 — The groups claim that the principal reason seed companies seek to introduce bioengineered wheat is, "by means of gene patents" to "stop farmers from saving seeds." They continued, "The introduction of patents into wheat breeding will destroy the collective heritage of plant breeding for wheat and erode the strong public breeding programs for wheat in Canada, Australia and the United States."

Release of the statement coincided with an announcement by Dow AgroSciences L.L.C. that it was launching wheat biotechnology initiatives in the United States and Australia. The opposition follows an announcement of funding of research into wheat biotechnology totaling up to $20 million by the Kansas Bioscience Authority.

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