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Growers see many benefits; foreign buyers opposed

WASHINGTON - Farmers in Montana and other states have mixed feelings about genetically engineered wheat.

"The growers of wheat are on the horns of a dilemma," National Association of Wheat Growers chief executive Daren Coppock said during a recent meeting in Washington, D.C. "We see lots of benefits, but there is the question of consumer acceptance."

Leaders of Montana agricultural organizations agreed with Coppock's assessment of the situation.

"We're excited about the possibilities of genetically engineered wheat," said Montana Farm Bureau President David McClure. "It's an exciting product that has the possibility to cut down on the amount of herbicide that we use. But at the moment most of our foreign customers have not accepted it."

Montana Farmers Union President Brooks Dailey shares McClure's concern about customer acceptance.

"We're very concerned about introducing genetically engineered wheat before we have a market," Dailey said. "None of our export countries want it."

Montana Wheat & Barley Committee executive vice president Jim Christianson noted that Montana farmers must take foreign buyers' concerns into consideration because about 70 percent of the state's wheat is exported. Countries in Asia buy the vast majority of the Montana wheat that is exported and they have been some of the most vocal opponents of genetically engineered wheat.

Wheat that is resistant to the herbicide Roundup is already being grown in test plots in Montana, according to Monsanto Co. executive vice president Jerry Steiner. Monsanto produces Roundup and has already successfully introduced corn, soybean cotton and canola varieties that are resistant to the herbicide. Steiner was at the public meeting with Coppock.

Farmers who use the herbicide-resistant varieties are able to spray Roundup on their fields without worrying that they will damage their crops. Steiner and other supporters say that it allows farmers to reduce their herbicide use. He said that in tests conducted in Montana, North Dakota and Canada, fields planted with Roundup Ready wheat had yields that were 5 to 15 percent greater than fields with conventional wheat.

"The world is going to need more wheat and this is one way to provide it," Steiner said.

Despite his excitement about Roundup-ready wheat, Steiner recognizes that there are concerns among farmers and consumers.

"We recognize that there are questions," Steiner said.

Ronald Triani, who is Kraft Foods senior director of scientific relations, shared Steiner's enthusiasm, but also injected a note of caution.

"We are very confident of the safety of genetically engineered crops," Triani said. "There in essence will be no safety issue as far as we are concerned."

Triani's confidence in the safety is offset by consumers' attitudes about genetically engineered wheat. The main problem, from his perspective, is that consumers do not recognize the benefits of genetically engineered wheat.

"People are going to want to look at wheat more carefully," said Gregory Jaffe, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Project on Biotechnology.

Christianson, of the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, said that people who oppose genetically engineered wheat need to be educated about its safety, but questioned if they would ever accept it.

"It is a subject that has been beaten to death," Christianson said. "We've talked about it and talked about it. It's about education and I am not sure that those few want to learn."

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