November 24, 2003
USDA Has New Plan To Assure Buyers US Wheat Isn't Biotech
The U.S. Department of Agriculture now has the means to assure foreign buyers that no genetically modified wheat is on the U.S. market even after the Monsanto Co. gets approval for its biotech Roundup Ready variety, according to USDA and company officials.
The U.S. has issued the assurances since 1999 to calm foreign concerns over biotech wheat, but officials began questioning their ability to continue the practice in December last year after Monsanto asked USDA for approval of its biotech breed of hard red spring wheat, said Dave Shipman, the deputy administrator for the department's grain inspection division.
Until U.S. exporters are confident sales will not suffer due to even the perception that commercial biotech wheat crops are being grown here, Montana plant breeder Dan Biggerstaff said the USDA assurances are key for trade.
"In trade circles, it's critical," said Biggerstaff, who heads research and development for Westbred Plant Breeders, a company he said has performed field trials for Monsanto's biotech wheat.
Dawn Forsythe, a spokesperson for the U.S. Wheat Associates, said the USDA assurances are "absolutely essential."
Foreign wheat buyers around the world need to certify to their customers that the wheat they buy from the U.S. is not genetically modified, she said.
USDA expects U.S. exports of about 29 million metric tons in the current marketing year.
After months of talks, the St. Louis-based Monsanto agreed to meet several conditions in return for USDA to continue the practice of guaranteeing importers that they are not buying biotech wheat, Shipman said.
Monsanto representative Shannon Troughton confirmed the deal with USDA, but would not comment further on it.
The reason for the deal, he said, is that just because a company receives approval for a biotech product does not necessarily mean it will be sold commercially.
Even if Monsanto does decide to eventually sell the wheat seeds to farmers, there may be a time period between U.S. approval and the date the company actually takes it to market.
That period, when Monsanto could sell the product, but chooses to hold off, is what Shipman calls a "gray area" or "in-between zone."
During that "gray" time, he said USDA will now be able to continue guaranteeing that no biotech wheat is on the U.S. market, thanks to the deal with Monsanto. In return, the company will promise in writing that it is not selling the seeds, submit to third-party auditing and set up controls to prevent biotech and non-biotech wheat seeds from mixing.
In order to keep them separated as Monsanto builds up supply in preparation for eventual distribution, Biggerstaff said, "They have to account for their seed increases - where they are (produced) and where they are stored."
Shipman said Monsanto will be responsible for keeping "a system in place to ensure that...any research activities that they're doing, any kind of work that they're doing with Roundup Ready wheat...is being handled in a way that it does not unintentionally enter the commercial marketplace."
In a document USDA plans to release Monday, the department says it will require Monsanto to control, document and account for "all seed and field wheat produced, the use or destruction of all field trial wheat and the movement and storage of ... seed."
In the "enforcement" section of the document, USDA warns Monsanto that if it violates the agreement by selling Roundup Ready wheat when it has promised not to, the government may impose criminal and civil legal penalties.
Monsanto, in a letter to USDA dated Nov. 3, agreed to USDA's terms.
The post-approval, pre-commercial "gray" time period may be especially relevant in Monsanto's case because the company has pledged not to sell any biotech wheat seeds in the U.S. until it also receives approval from Japan and Canada. While those deregulation processes are ongoing in the U.S. and Canada, Monsanto still has not yet petitioned for Japanese approval.