Natural Foods Merchandiser

Growers Fear Biotech Wheat Could Harm Sales

Monsanto Corp. has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service to approve its Roundup Ready wheat variety. If approved, the biotech crop, which is genetically engineered to withstand applications of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, could be in breads and other human foods by the summer of 2004.

But wheat farmers and grain-elevator operators are concerned that quick approval of the biotech wheat could result in lost sales to food companies in the United States and especially in Europe, Australia, China and Japan, where labeling of genetically modified foods is required.

Ninety-eight percent of North Dakota grain-elevator operators surveyed said they were either "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned" about the proposed introduction of Roundup Ready wheat, according to the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Seventy-eight percent of the survey's 52 respondents said that they supported a more comprehensive public review of the biotech wheat than what the USDA has previously conducted on biotech crops.

The USDA's review of the wheat should be strictly scientific, said the National Association of Wheat Growers in an April letter sent to USDA Secretary Anne Veneman. In March, Veneman received a legal petition filed by agricultural and environmental groups requesting that a federal moratorium be placed on Roundup Ready wheat.

Steve Taormina is the standards coordinator for New Hope Natural Media.

Changing Message Changes Perception of Biotech Food

Consumers are willing to pay more for plain-labeled foods (those without biotech content information) than for foods labeled as genetically modified, according to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service department.

The Effects of Information on Consumer Demand for Biotech Foods: Evidence from Experimental Auctions, released in March, showed that consumers who received only negative information about agricultural biotechnology bid 35 percent to 38 percent less for GM food products.

To conduct the study, researchers in two Midwestern cities gave 172 consumers one of six sets of information packets. Each packet contained either "anti-biotech," "pro-biotech" or "science-based" information—or a combination of that information. The statements in each packet were credited to sources, which included Greenpeace for the anti-biotech messages, Monsanto for the pro-biotech statements and third-party scientists and academics for the science-based information.

Participants read the information packets before they bid on tortilla chips, potatoes and vegetable oil—each with and without biotech labels.

The results showed that participants who received only pro-biotech information bid slightly more for the biotech-labeled food, but consumers who received both pro- and anti-biotech information bid less for the biotech-labeled foods.

When science-based, third-party information was included, it had a greater moderating effect on consumers' reaction to anti-biotech statements than pro-biotech statements. Without scientific information, the bid price for biotech-labeled foods varied from slightly more than that of plain-labeled foods to 35 percent below. With scientific statements, consumers bid for GM-labeled foods only slightly below what they bid for plain-labeled foods.

"Recent research shows that there may be a need for third-party, verifiable information on biotech foods so consumers do not have to rely on the information from biotechnology companies and environmental groups," noted the study's authors. "Research on organic foods reached a similar conclusion."

"Over 20 national consumer polls since 1997 have shown that Americans overwhelmingly want labels on genetically engineered foods, mainly so they can avoid buying them," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association in Little Marais, Minn.

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