The Monsanto Co. yesterday scrapped plans to commercialize genetically engineered wheat, the biggest defeat yet for advocates of agricultural biotechnology -- and a victory for skeptics who said the company was trying to foist on the world a crop it did not want or need.
Monsanto said it would indefinitely delay plans to commercialize Roundup Ready wheat, a product that three years ago seemed headed for quick approval in the United States and Canada. The company said it would cut most of the $5 million it spends annually to develop the crop.
It did not rule out reviving it some day, but said it would do so only as part of a larger package of genetic alterations in the wheat plant that might win broad acceptance in the marketplace. Monsanto said any decision to revive the product would be four to eight years away.
While a few gene-altered crops have won wide acceptance among farmers, none is used primarily as human food and none carries the philosophical significance of wheat, fields of which make up the "amber waves of grain" that symbolize the bounty of North America. Monsanto's efforts to develop gene-altered wheat had been watched around the world as a bellwether for the future of agriculture.
A small but organized band of farmers in Canada and the northern Great Plains, fearing introduction of the wheat would cost them vital markets among skeptical consumers in Europe and Asia, fought for five years to kill the crop, forming a tactical alliance with environmental groups that oppose genetic engineering in principle. Their efforts set off broad debate among farm groups and in state legislatures.
The skeptics celebrated yesterday's announcement.
"We're just thrilled," said Gail Wiley, a farmer near Millarton, N.D., who joined her husband, Tom, in spearheading opposition to Monsanto's plans. "I'm sure Monsanto won't say it was because of us, but we're going to take the win, whether they admit it or not."
Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, called Monsanto's decision "a worldwide victory for consumers." Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, said it was "a watershed event to have a product rejected in North America because of consumer and farmer desires. It will embolden farmers to say when we see a product we don't want on the market, we can stop it."
Roundup Ready wheat was designed to make it easier and less labor-intensive for growers to control weeds. The plant resists the effects of Roundup, an herbicide sold by Monsanto and, under the generic name glyphosate, by other companies. Roundup normally kills crops and can't be used after they're in the ground, but Roundup Ready crops have been tweaked at a genetic level to permit them to survive even heavy applications of the herbicide.
Monsanto said it scrapped the product not because of pressure from activists, but out of hard-nosed business calculations. Spring wheat acreage in North America, the market Monsanto was targeting, has shrunk 25 percent since research on Roundup Ready wheat began in 1997, the company said. With growers divided on whether to accept the crop, Monsanto said it simply saw better opportunities elsewhere.
Monsanto declined to say how much it had spent developing Roundup Ready wheat. The company said it would focus on expanding sales of gene-altered corn, cotton, canola and soybeans, which have been widely accepted in North America and in many foreign countries.
"I wish it were complex, but it's really not," said Carl Casale, executive vice president of Monsanto, based in St. Louis. "It was just a pure economic analysis of this opportunity relative to others that we have."
For two years, Monsanto's biggest political problem in pushing Roundup Ready wheat had been not its enemies but its friends.
The most influential wheat growers' group, North American Wheat Growers, officially supported the crop and wanted it approved. But the group, and other wheat organizations, also pressed Monsanto to commercialize the product only when certain conditions were met, including evidence that it would be accepted among overseas buyers.
Those conditions became nearly impossible to satisfy as foreign opposition hardened in the past two years. Japanese millers went so far as to tour the American and Canadian wheat belts to oppose the crop.
Roundup Ready soybeans and canola have been huge successes with North American farmers, and they have also embraced other Monsanto crops that have been genetically altered to resist insects. But none of the gene-altered crops widely adopted to date is a food crop with the symbolic significance of wheat.
Soybeans and canola are pressed for their oil, most of which is used in small quantities in processed food. Most corn is fed to animals, and cotton is used for clothing. Wheat would have been by far the most important food crop to "go biotech," in the phrase that farmers use.
Darren Coppock, chief executive of the North American Wheat Growers, in Washington, emphasized yesterday that efforts to use biotechnology to improve the wheat crop were not dead. But genetic alterations that benefit farmers alone might not be enough to overcome marketplace resistance, he said, adding that companies need to develop genetic alterations that could benefit millers and consumers.
Among farmers, "nobody has a scientific or technical or philosophical objection to using biotechnology in wheat," he said. "The resistance comes if the person at the very end of the food chain says, 'I'm not going to buy the product.' "
Monsanto has already filed for approval of Roundup Ready wheat in some countries, including the United States, and the company said yesterday it would consult with regulators on how to proceed. Monsanto left open the possibility of seeking approval now in some countries, so that commercialization might be easier if it decides to revive the crop in several years. But the company said it would seek to go to market only if farmer sentiment changes, perhaps after other companies have successfully commercialized biotech wheat varieties.
Monsanto's decision to continue pressing for regulatory approval led to some wariness yesterday among opponents of biotech wheat, who fear the company, perhaps under new management in the future, might break its pledges to farmers.
"We do have a hard time trusting Monsanto," said Gail Wiley, the North Dakota farmer. "If that [regulatory] process is still going forward, we'll be watching."