No matter how you slice it, the “bread” in the bread and butter of Montana’s economy is wheat. While many of the state’s extractive industries like timber and mining have been in steady decline for the last two decades, wheat—a $200 million a year industry in exports alone—has remained this state’s most lucrative cash crop. Wheat that bears the Montana name is a veritable icon of American wholesomeness, a high quality, high protein commodity that commands a premium price in the global marketplace. Nearly 80 percent of all the wheat grown in Montana is destined for overseas markets, predominantly Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and the Middle East.
Of all the physical and economic characteristics that make Montana wheat so desirable, one property appears destined to change as early as 18 to 24 months from now. Unlike other major crops grown in the state such as corn, soybeans and canola, Montana wheat is still “GMO free;” that is, it contains no genetically modified organisms. But on small test plots at Montana State University in Bozeman, strains of genetically modified (GM) wheat are now being raised in an effort to bring to market the newest seeds of the biotech revolution: Roundup Ready™ wheat.
Roundup is an inexpensive and relatively safe herbicide that acts as a chlorophyll inhibitor to prevent weeds from growing. Crops genetically engineered with the Roundup Ready gene are resistant to the herbicide’s effects, allowing farmers to spray their fields with a single herbicide that kills the weeds but not the crops. Other Round Ready crops, such as soybeans and canola, are already in widespread production in Montana. At least 40 other genetically modified crops are now in the U.S. food supply and have found their way into thousands of products on supermarket shelves. Unlike other GM crops touted for their higher yields, disease and pest resistance and improved nutritional value—the prime example being “golden rice,” genetically engineered to contain beta carotene—the primary benefactor of GM wheat would be the farmer, who, the argument goes, would spend less money on herbicides and contribute fewer and less persistent toxic chemicals to the soil and water.
“The only reason for doing this is because of the hope that [farmers] will make more money. That’s the whole point,” says Luther Talbert, professor of plant sciences and plant pathology at MSU, who heads up the spring wheat breeding and genetics program. Whether GM wheat will produce greater yields than traditional varieties, or result in financial savings for farmers, remains to be seen. The results with other GM crops have been mixed at best.
While MSU has not taken a formal position on the introduction of GM wheat in Montana, its GM wheat research is funded primarily by Monsanto, which holds the patents on Roundup and the Roundup Ready gene.
“For us, it’s not really a matter of us making a case,” says Talbert. “It’s more a matter of describing, to the best of our abilities, what it is, what it’ll do or won’t do. It’s the farmers themselves who are going to have to decide.”
Proceeding with caution
Thus far, Montana’s farmers are erring on the side of caution. Ever since the introduction in 1994 of Flavr Savr tomatoes, the first genetically engineered crop licensed for consumption in the United States, debate over GM products has commanded global attention. Many consumers, particularly those in Europe and Japan, have stated unequivocally that they do not want GM products on their shelves.
“We’re in a difficult position,” says Herb Karst, treasurer of the Montana Grain Growers Association and a wheat, barley and canola farmer in Sunburst, Mont. “We don’t want to close the door on this new technology that we believe is safe. But saying that we believe it’s safe certainly doesn’t instill that same thought in the minds of our customers.”
Criticism over GMOs (or “biotech” food, as its proponents prefer) reached a fevered pitch last year after the discovery that food-grade corn had been contaminated with “Starlink” corn, a genetically-modified strain not approved for human consumption by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Starlink fiasco hammered U.S. corn exports and undoubtedly delayed the introduction of GM wheat by at least a year or two.
For farmers, GM wheat poses an interesting dilemma. Unlike some crops, wheat is a self-pollinating plant, which means that the likelihood of a GM wheat field cross-pollinating with a non-GM wheat field (so-called “genetic drift”) is remote, thus reducing some (though clearly not all) of the legal liabilities. Likewise, while there are always concerns that GM crops may contain unintended elements such as human allergens, poisons or cancer-causing agents, other Roundup Ready crops are already well-ensconced in the U.S. food supply. That said, food growers know that consumer perception is everything. Of immediate concern to Montana’s wheat farmers is “identity preservation,” that is, the ability to keep GM wheat separate from non-GM wheat, as the saying goes, “from the farm gate to the dinner plate.” If GM wheat is introduced in Montana, all harvesting, storage and transport equipment—from combines and augers to grain elevators, railroad cars and barges—will need to be strictly segregated or meticulously cleaned.
“The entire Montana wheat crop may be affected in totality if the identity preservation program isn’t strong enough,” says Karst. “We must be so very careful that if this product is introduced into the state that the identity preservation program is strict enough that there is absolutely no chance—zero chance—that it could be mixed into the general commodity wheat.”
That, says Brian Schweitzer, a former candidate for the U.S. Senate, would be nearly impossible in the current system. Schweitzer, a farmer in Whitefish who grows between 30,000 and 50,000 bushels of wheat annually, predicts that within 12 months of the introduction of GM wheat in Montana, some customer somewhere in the world will identify GM wheat in a non-GM shipment. “We get a premium for our wheat. And I’m not willing to jeopardize our premium for Monsanto’s profits,” says Schweitzer. “They haven’t been able to assure anybody in the market that we can keep identity preserved.”
During the 2001 legislative session, bills were introduced in both houses to place a two-year moratorium on the introduction of GM wheat. The legislation would have established a committee to study the potential economic impact on Montana’s economy, including questions of legal liability, agronomic effects, and so on. The moratorium was opposed by the Montana Grain Growers Association, who feared that it would cause undue alarm among consumers. Their opposition, along with heavy lobbying by Monsanto, killed both bills.
“If a farmer thinks that GMO wheat is right for him and he wants to purchase it, he ought to have a right to do that,” says Dan Dutton, chairman of the Carbon County Resource Council, which supported the moratorium and has launched a campaign to educate farmers on the benefits and risks of GM crops. “But I think he needs to have all the information at hand before we let the cat out of the bag. Because once it’s out, it’s out, as people in the corn industry found out.”
Who will decide?
Part of the problem is that farmers have so little say about if—or when—GM wheat comes to Montana. Many farmers still engage is the age-old practice of setting aside some of their wheat crop for producing seeds for the next growing season. But if GM wheat is introduced in Montana, Roundup Ready wheat farmers would be bound by licensing agreements to purchase their seeds from Monsanto each year. Monsanto has already shown that it aggressively pursues those who violate those agreements, and has opened more than 475 seed piracy cases against farmers in the United States alone.
“[Monsanto] has got their whole company staked not just on Roundup Ready wheat but Roundup Ready products and other biotech,” says Lochiel “Locky” Edwards, of the Montana Grain Growers Association. “We think biotech will be the wave of the future. Our caution is born out of our concern for our customers and their readiness to accept them. The sad part is that they’re fed misinformation by various parties, because of philosophy and in some cases religion.”
Are customer concerns justified? Steve Druker, executive director of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity, thinks so. Several years ago, Druker and a broad coalition of scientists and religious leaders sued the FDA for its failure to acknowledge what its own scientists were saying about the potential hazards GMOs; namely, that GMOs pose unique risks to human health and the environment.
“The official FDA’s policy statement that came out in May of 1992 states that ‘The agency is not aware of any information showing that these new foods differ in any meaningful way from other foods.’ That is a blatant lie,” says Druker. “They know these foods are in the food supply, they refuse to label them and they refuse to tell the truth about them. It is unconscionable and it’s something Americans need to know the truth about. It’s one of the greatest scandals in the history of this country.”
After Monsanto became a lightning rod for similar criticism following its effort to introduce the so-called “terminator” seeds that creates sterile crops, Monsanto President and Chief Executive Officer Hendrik Verfaillie had this to say last November to the Farm Journal Conference in Washington, D.C.: “My company, Monsanto, had focused so much attention on getting the technology right for our customer, the grower, that we didn’t fully take into account the issues and concerns it raised for other people. We thought we were doing some great things. A lot of people thought we were making mistakes. We were blinded by our own enthusiasm. … When we tried to explain the benefits, the science and the safety, we did not understand that our tone—our very approach—was seen as arrogant. We were still in the ‘trust me’ mode when the expectation was ‘show me.’”
“Do I think GMOs are dangerous? I think the jury is still out,” says Schweitzer. “As an agronomist and as a plant breeder, I don’t see the danger. … But the big picture is that my customers have said that they don’t want GMO wheat. So I don’t think we should have GMO wheat in Montana. Not until the market changes.”
When Karst of the Montana Grain Growers Association was asked if he personally would plant GM wheat if it’s approved for human consumption, his answer was no.
“There’s a lot of good things to be said about GM products,” says Karst. “But for me as a producer, it’s strictly economic.”