Monsanto Delays Debut of Wheat Bioengineered to Resist HerbicideScott Kilman, Staff Reporter
The Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2002
Monsanto Co. is pushing back by at least one year the earliest possible launch date of a controversial bioengineered wheat plant.
The new timetable delays until at least 2004 the commercialization of what potentially could be an important source of income for the St. Louis crop-biotechnology concern, at just the time that it is preparing to go it alone. Pharmacia Corp., Peapack, N.J., plans to spin off to its shareholders its 85% stake in Monsanto during the fourth quarter.
Monsanto is banking on wheat farmers eventually buying enough of its bioengineered seed to plant tens of millions of acres.
The seed is designed to make the chore of removing weeds a lot easier. It grows into a plant able to tolerate exposure to Monsanto's all-purpose herbicide, Roundup. The modification makes it possible for farmers to spray Roundup directly on fields without hurting the crop.
Monsanto scored a big hit with U.S. soybean farmers in the mid-1990s when it launched a Roundup-resistant soybean plant, a move that also increased farmer demand for Roundup. Some analysts figure Monsanto generates about $600 million in annual revenue from selling Roundup-resistant soybeans and licensing seed companies to sell the variety.
Monsanto has also transplanted its Roundup-resistant gene into corn and cotton, versions of which have been commercialized. But getting the trait into a high-yielding wheat plant proved to be more time consuming than Monsanto expected. Mark Buckingham, a Monsanto spokesman, said the company had to tweak its transformation techniques in order to create a wheat plant that would appeal to farmers.
Monsanto said it plans to begin submitting data later this year to the Food and Drug Administration about the consumer safety of its Roundup-resistant wheat plant, the company's first attempt at commercializing any type of genetically modified wheat. Among other things, the FDA is interested in whether any allergens might accidentally have been transplanted into a bioengineered plant.
Monsanto had expected to begin selling Roundup-resistant wheat seed to U.S. farmers between 2003 and 2005. Mr. Buckingham said the company expects to launch the seed in 2004 or 2005.
Monsanto will use the time to build support for the bioengineered seed among wheat-industry officials, some of whom worry that making ingredients from the plant would upset some customers. Industry officials are debating how to ensure that genetically modified crops don't mingle with ingredients for products aimed at consumers who want to avoid bioengineered food.
Many U.S. wheat farmers are also nervous about Monsanto's plans. Wheat growers are far more dependent on foreign customers than growers of soybeans, cotton and corn, and consumers in many countries are more leery of bioengineered food than American shoppers are. Nearly half of the wheat grown in North Dakota is exported to places such as Japan and Europe, where concerns about the safety of bioengineered food have been making headlines.
"The wheat industry is encouraging a go-slow approach," said Neal Fisher, administrator of the North Dakota Wheat Commission, which uses farmer fees to promote wheat consumption. "We aren't ready [for Monsanto's bioengineered seed] today," he added.
At 4 p.m. Tuesday in New York Stock Exchange composite trading, Monsanto was at $31.02, up 61 cents.
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