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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 May, 2004, 15:07 GMT 16:07 UK
GM wheat 'delayed, not abandoned'
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

French loaves in supermarket   BBC
US grain markets depend on Europe
Both sides in the bitterly contested debate over genetically modified crops are making the utmost of Monsanto's decision to stop marketing GM wheat.

The biotech industry maintains this is simply a deferment, a minor hold-up in the onward march of GM technology.

Its opponents say Monsanto's decision is highly significant, showing how hard it is to get shoppers to buy GM food.

This time the facts tend to support the opposition: the cold logic of commerce means GM wheat's prospects look dim.

We will continue to monitor the wheat industry's desire for crop improvements
Carl Casale, Monsanto
Monsanto said it would not try to market a strain of GM wheat it had developed because it "does not have a strategic fit with our overall strategy".

The company said in a statement from its US headquarters that commercial development of Roundup Ready wheat, modified to resist a widely used weedkiller, would be deferred so it could concentrate on research into GM corn (maize), cotton and oilseeds.

Carl Casale, Monsanto executive vice-president, said: "Acreage planted in the spring wheat market in the US and Canada has declined nearly 25% since 1997, and even more in the higher-cost weed control target market for this product."

But he added: "We will continue to monitor the wheat industry's desire for crop improvements... to determine if and when it might be practical to move forward with a biotech wheat product.

Food crops rejected

"This decision allows us to defer commercial development of Roundup Ready wheat, in order to align with the potential commercialisation of other biotechnology traits in wheat, estimated to be four to eight years in the future."

Gundula Azeez, the UK Soil Association's policy manager, told BBC News Online: "I think it's fantastic news.

"Bayer announced in March it was shelving plans to grow GM maize in the UK, but wheat is far more important.

"We eat wheat in bread, while maize is mainly a forage crop grown for animal feed. The biotech industry is going ahead with GM maize, cotton and soya - but they're not used directly for human consumption.

The biotech industry has kept going with the wheat for so long because it believes its own propaganda
Gundula Azeez, Soil Association
"This decision was announced by Monsanto in the US. The majority of North American farmers and the continent's wheat industry have been actively lobbying against the introduction of GM wheat.

"In March, the Canadian wheat board said 87% of its buyers wanted guarantees the grain was GM-free, up from 65% three years ago.

"In Europe, we depend on North American wheat, and we'd have been eating this next season."

Gung-ho for the future

The biotech industry says 18 countries are growing 67 million hectares (165 million acres) of GM crops, chiefly cotton, maize and soya.

It says the area planted with GM strains is rising by 10-15% annually, with early figures for 2004 suggesting it will rise again this year.

One source told BBC News Online: "A lot of companies are focussing on second-generation products, for instance crops containing more omega-3 oils.

"What you've got is one company deciding not to bring one product to market. The commitment to biotech, the success story of biotech - these continue."

But Gundula Azeez said: "This decision basically says there isn't a market for GM food. The biotech industry has kept going with the wheat for so long because it believes its own propaganda."




SEE ALSO:
Monsanto drops plans for GM wheat
11 May 04  |  Business
Bayer deals blow to UK GM crops
31 Mar 04  |  Science/Nature


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