Last month's revelation that seed giant Monsanto plans to establish a wheat-breeding research station on the outskirts of Great Falls touched off a statewide firestorm. Groups critical of Monsanto's work with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, called for the public to comment on a Cascade County rezoning proposal necessary for the construction to begin. Monsanto itself maintains that future work there would not involve GMOs but rather conventional wheat breeding.
"It's important that the products are ultimately tested in the locations where they will be grown," says Monsanto's Kristin Schneider, "to ensure they meet the needs of the local farmers who desire to grow improved wheat varieties."
Last spring, Monsanto announced it was consolidating wheat breeding research and development at a new Wheat Technology Center in Twin Falls, Idaho. The company reentered the wheat industry in 2009 after purchasing the Montana-based company WestBred. WestBred regional manager Ryan Holt says the consolidation is primarily to "maximize efficiencies" and calls for moving an existing wheat-breeding station and test plots from Bozeman to Great Falls. Cascade County Planning Director Susan Conell says she expects to receive an operational statement from Holt in the next few days.
Monsanto insists that its focus with wheat in the near-term is on conventional breeding. However, communications director Sara Miller says the company is in the early stages of renewing its biotech development, and Schneider adds that current efforts to breed wheat for increased yields and multiple herbicide tolerances "could serve as the foundation for new biotechnology traits."
According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture database, Monsanto began growing glyphosate-tolerant wheat in Hawaii back in fall 2011. Glyphosate is an herbicide first brought to market by Monsanto as the weedkiller Roundup in the early 1970s. Between 1997 and 2005, Monsanto attempted to cultivate Roundup-resistant wheat similar to its Roundup Ready corn and soy on plots throughout the western U.S., including in Montana. The project, which generated widespread condemnation, was discontinued in 2005 but Monsanto expressed a desire to begin new Roundup Ready wheat trials last year. USDA records show Monsanto is currently growing glyphosate-tolerant wheat on 300 acres in North Dakota.
Conell says she's only received one public letter so far regarding the rezone in Great Falls, but is quick to point out that the local chapter of national protest group March Against Monsanto is circulating a petition demanding that the city block the proposed construction. Conell expects to be inundated with public comment "in another week or so."