After spending seven years field-testing a genetically modified version of wheat, Monsanto Co. announced May 10 that it would halt its development efforts in this area for at least four to eight years.
The company, which is one of the largest producers of GM crop seeds worldwide, was developing a Roundup Ready version of hard red spring wheat, a high-protein variety that is used in bread. Roundup Ready is Monsanto's term for a plant that has been engineered to resist its Roundup herbicide.
Monsanto claimed that it deferred its GM wheat efforts because of declining spring wheat production in the United States and Canada. At the same time, there was no shortage of opposition to bioengineered wheat from domestic and overseas consumer groups, and even from some wheat farmers who feared that Europe and Japan might suspend all U.S. wheat exports if GM wheat was planted on a large scale.
Not all farmers reject Monsanto's technology. David Torgerson, executive director of the 900-member Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers, said $1 billion in wheat production has been lost to fungal disease over the last decade statewide. He hopes Monsanto will eventually introduce a GM wheat variety into the marketplace, crediting the approach for successfully combating agricultural pests, weeds and disease.
GM opponents hailed Monsanto's decision but said continued vigilance is required. Craig Winters, executive director of The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, said that approval of GM wheat by the United States Department of Agriculture is a potentially looming problem.
"We'd like to see [Monsanto] withdraw [its] petitions because, all of a sudden, USDA could say they're approved to grow this, and then they could go forward," Winters said. "It would be a mistake to let our guard down."
Monsanto said it would shift focus away from wheat and put more effort into developing new genetic traits for corn, cotton and soybeans.