Published online 11 May 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news040510-3


Monsanto scrubs transgenic wheat

Farmers' fears spell doom for project worth millions.

Roughly half of US wheat exports go to Europe and Japan.Roughly half of US wheat exports go to Europe and Japan.© Getty Images

The biotechnology giant Monsanto has abandoned plans to launch genetically modified wheat strains onto the world market. The company says the decision is a response to resistance to the technology among North American wheat farmers.

"As a result of dialogue with wheat industry leaders, we recognize the business opportunities with wheat are less attractive relative to Monsanto's other commercial priorities," executive vice-president Carl Casale says in a statement.

In 1997, Monsanto began developing wheat that allows farmers to treat fields with Monsanto's Roundup herbicide without damaging the crop. In the past year alone the Missouri-based company has spent almost US$5 million on the project.

But industry groups fear that the hostility to transgenic food, particularly among European consumers, will damage the lucrative export market. In 1999-2000, around half of the 5.5 million tonnes of US wheat exports went to Europe and Japan.

Consumer choice

Anti-transgenic lobbyists have hailed the U-turn as a victory for consumer choice. "It's not just a victory for campaigners," says Sue Mayer of UK campaign group Genewatch. "The message has ultimately come from ordinary people."

Monsanto says that by using Roundup herbicide together with transgenic wheat farmers can boost their yields by 5-15%. But although yields may go up, exporters fear that revenues would plummet, as European food producers have insisted that they do not want transgenic grain.

"It is one of the clearest and most dramatic examples of the [biotechnology] industry's failure to convince people about their product," says Mayer. And yields can just as easily be increased using traditional breeding methods, she argues.

The decision was purely commercial, and not a move away from transgenic technology in general, says Colin Merritt, Monsanto's UK biotechnology director. Since 1997, the amount of land devoted to spring wheat in the United States and Canada has declined by a quarter.

Monsanto says that it will now "realign" its US$500-million annual research and development budget to accelerate development of its transgenic cotton, maize and oilseed rape crops. It is expected to market these crops predominantly in the United States and the developing world.

But the company remains hopeful that attitudes to genetically modified wheat will change. "We will continue to monitor the wheat industry's desire for crop improvements to determine if and when it might be practical to move forward with a biotech wheat product," Casale says in his statement.