US biotech crop pioneer Monsanto is to suspend the introduction of the world's first biotech wheat, amid public outcry at the possible risks of genetically modified crops and at Monsanto's aggressive marketing tactics, writes Kevin Phillips.
The company's decision was taken after extensive consultation with customers within the wheat industry, said spokesperson Chris Horner, who cited "declining spring wheat acreage as well as dissent among wheat growers and buyers as factors in the decision."
The biotech giant has spent millions of dollars over the past six years field testing Roundup Ready wheat, involving genetically modifying the product to tolerate applications of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. It had already successfully commercialized Roundup Ready corn and soybean feed grains, and hoped to spread its herbicide-resistant technology into the vast wheat-growing industry, starting in North America.
However, the company's plans sparked widespread opposition from environmentalists, farmers, consumers and foreign wheat buyers alike, with concerns for human health risks through increased weed resistance, coupled by fears over corporate control of key world crops. Opponents of Monsanto see the company's about turn as indicative of growing awareness and opposition to biotech crops.
"Monsanto has heeded the mood of farmers, consumers and public opinion," said US Organic Consumers Association director, Ronnie Cummins. "The company now knows that it cannot introduce new crops without a tremendous amount of debate and civil strife."
Monsanto's decision to back away from biotech wheat came amid strong Canadian criticism, with an anti-biotech wheat advertisement campaign launched there in March, and opposition to the product from the Canadian Wheat Board.
Monsanto subsequently asked the US wheat industry to consider reneging on its pledge not to introduce biotech wheat in the US without a simultaneous release in Canada, but was flatly refused. Additionally, Japan, the largest buyer of US spring wheat, said they were unwilling to risk alienating its customers by accepting biotech wheat supplies, with some companies stating that they would cease to buy any US wheat if biotech wheat was approved, fearing that it might get mixed with conventional supplies.
Several US groups also sought to derail the project, including groups in its largest wheat-growing state, North Dakota, where Monsanto planned to launch its biotech wheat. "I think it's a wise decision," explained North Dakota wheat farmer Louis Kuster, "our overseas markets overwhelmingly and repeatedly told us they didn't want it and would seek alternative sources of supply, which would have meant the ruination of the wheat market."
Earlier this year the UK government said that Monsanto's Round Up tolerant sugar beet and fodder beet would not be approved in the country for fear of damage to wildlife arising from weed control.
Peter Riley, GM Campaigner for Friends of the Earth said that Monsanto's failure with GM wheat was a worldwide victory for consumers and farmers. "This is another financial blow to Monsanto and the company should now pull out of this discredited business once and for all. Governments and the biotech industry must now recognize that this technology is a spent force, and should focus on new crop technology aimed at sustainable farming."
Monsanto has spent less than $5 million to date in fiscal 2004, and will stop breeding and field research on Roundup Ready wheat in favour of work on products such as biotech cotton and soybean oil, but stressed that its shift in focus will not alter its forecast for fiscal-year 2004 earnings.