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Monsanto Pulls Plan To Commercialize Gene-Altered Wheat

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_____Correction_____
In some May 11 editions, an article on genetically engineered wheat misnamed the nation's major association of wheat growers. It is the National Association of Wheat Growers, not North American Wheat Growers. The same article misspelled the first name of the group's chief executive; he is Daren Coppock.


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By Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page A01

Monsanto Co. yesterday scrapped plans to commercialize genetically engineered wheat, the biggest defeat yet for advocates of agricultural biotechnology -- and a victory for skeptics who said the company was trying to foist on the world a crop it did not want or need.

Monsanto said it would indefinitely delay plans to commercialize Roundup Ready wheat, a product that three years ago seemed headed for quick approval in the United States and Canada. The company said it would cut most of the $5 million it spends annually to develop the crop.

It did not rule out reviving it some day, but said it would do so only as part of a larger package of genetic alterations in the wheat plant that might win broad acceptance in the marketplace. Monsanto said any decision to revive the product would be four to eight years away.

While a few gene-altered crops have won wide acceptance among farmers, none is used primarily as human food and none carries the philosophical significance of wheat, fields of which make up the "amber waves of grain" that symbolize the bounty of North America. Monsanto's efforts to develop gene-altered wheat had been watched around the world as a bellwether for the future of agriculture.

A small but organized band of farmers in Canada and the northern Great Plains, fearing introduction of the wheat would cost them vital markets among skeptical consumers in Europe and Asia, fought for five years to kill the crop, forming a tactical alliance with environmental groups that oppose genetic engineering in principle. Their efforts set off broad debate among farm groups and in state legislatures.

The skeptics celebrated yesterday's announcement.

"We're just thrilled," said Gail Wiley, a farmer near Millarton, N.D., who joined her husband, Tom, in spearheading opposition to Monsanto's plans. "I'm sure Monsanto won't say it was because of us, but we're going to take the win, whether they admit it or not."

Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, called Monsanto's decision "a worldwide victory for consumers." Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, said it was "a watershed event to have a product rejected in North America because of consumer and farmer desires. It will embolden farmers to say when we see a product we don't want on the market, we can stop it."

Roundup Ready wheat was designed to make it easier and less labor-intensive for growers to control weeds. The plant resists the effects of Roundup, an herbicide sold by Monsanto and, under the generic name glyphosate, by other companies. Roundup normally kills crops and can't be used after they're in the ground, but Roundup Ready crops have been tweaked at a genetic level to permit them to survive even heavy applications of the herbicide.

Monsanto said it scrapped the product not because of pressure from activists, but out of hard-nosed business calculations. Spring wheat acreage in North America, the market Monsanto was targeting, has shrunk 25 percent since research on Roundup Ready wheat began in 1997, the company said. With growers divided on whether to accept the crop, Monsanto said it simply saw better opportunities elsewhere.

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