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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington farmers happy about bio-wheat decision

Many Washington wheat farmers are relieved that Monsanto Co. stopped development of genetically engineered spring wheat that could have jeopardized overseas sales.

“I was surprised by the decision but kind of glad they came to the realization that until there’s consumer acceptance, it’s not worth it,” said Whitman County farmer Randy Suess. “We know it’s the wave of the future, but that’s a ways off yet.”

The St. Louis based agricultural-sciences company is the maker of Roundup herbicide, a popular, indiscriminate plant-killer. Homeowners use it to control weeds. Farmers in Washington state use it to rid fields of weeds such as goat grass before seeding in the spring.

The chemical dissipates quickly after it’s applied, allowing growers to plant quickly without fear that residue will kill seedlings.

Monsanto was developing “Roundup Ready” wheat that could survive an herbicide application. The wheat would have been a hard red variety planted in the spring in places like North Dakota and Minnesota that’s especially useful for bread-making.

Most of the spring wheat planted in Washington is the soft white variety, which is better used as pastry flour.

Since about 85 percent of the wheat grown in Washington is exported, the regional wheat industry is especially sensitive to customer demands.

Japan, for example, is a steady buyer of Washington wheat and has said that if genetically modified wheat is commercially planted in the United States, it would buy wheat elsewhere.

Glenn Squires, of the Washington Wheat Commission, said until there’s a way to strictly segregate wheat, the risks of mingling traditional wheat with genetically modified wheat at grain elevators and shipping terminals is too great.

Monsanto, which has been working on Roundup Ready wheat since 1997, said it shelved its research because of economics.

“The market has sent signals that it’s just not ready,” Squires said.

Furthermore, spring wheat acreage has fallen in recent years as farmers put land into conservation or plant other crops.

In Washington state, for example, spring wheat acreage has dropped from 600,000 acres two years ago to 480,000 acres this year.

Winter wheat, which is seeded in the fall, remains the dominant crop in Eastern Washington. Farmers planted 1.8 million acres of winter wheat, which will be harvested beginning in July.

Monsanto’s investment in wheat research this year has been less than $5 million, about 1 percent of its $500 million budget for research and development.

The company has already produced genetically modified corn and soybean plants that are resistant to Roundup. The crops are grown in the Midwest and fed mostly to cattle and hogs.

Wheat has drawn more concern because it is grown as food for people around the world.

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