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Other views: Consider all implications of ag biotech

Wheat grower Jeff Topp (Forum, Sept. 21) is rightly concerned about the disease Fusarium head blight, also called scab. And yet, he sees the solution to the scab problem coming through better genetics from biotechnology- the "only way," he says, ...

Wheat grower Jeff Topp (Forum, Sept. 21) is rightly concerned about the disease Fusarium head blight, also called scab. And yet, he sees the solution to the scab problem coming through better genetics from biotechnology- the "only way," he says, to defeat scab.

I doubt whether many scientists would concur that there is only one method for solving any agronomic problem. Furthermore, Topp's myopia affects North Dakota taxpayers of all stripes.

First, know that your tax dollars are working. Public-funded wheat breeding efforts such as those at North Dakota State University using conventional methods or molecular markers may offer the best hope for addressing scab-related production problems.

However, biotech varieties relying on genes from totally unrelated species to confer scab resistance are most likely years away - and are more likely to face rejection, especially by European and Asian consumers.

Meanwhile, some current crop-production problems may be resulting from the use of a so-called crop protectant. A group of Saskatchewan scientists (M. R. Fernandez et al.) has identified herbicides containing the active ingredient glyphosate as a potential source for scab in wheat.

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Their peer-reviewed report, "Crop Production Factors Associated with Fusarium Head Blight in Spring Wheat in Eastern Saskatchewan," reveals a statistically significant association between a previous application of glyphosate herbicide and scab. This report appears in the September-October 2005 issue of Crop Science.

Monsanto Co. pioneered glyphosate herbicide under the brand name Roundup. Monsanto now markets glyphosate-resistant "Roundup Ready" crops, but in 2004 the company decided to shelve, for now, its plans to commercialize Roundup Ready wheat.

So what? Well, there are some North Dakota wheat producers who believe the answer to all their short-term prayers would be a biotech wheat variety with "stacked" genes - that is, one resistant both to glyphosate herbicides (Roundup Ready) and Fusarium head blight.

There's the rub for North Dakota taxpayers. Farmers who either don't believe the Saskatchewan research demonstrating an association between glyphosate herbicides and scab in wheat (or more likely, aren't aware of it) are hinting that NDSU should provide them with wheat varieties possessing these potentially schizophrenic resistance traits.

By the way, Topp is a member of Growers for Wheat Biotechnology Inc., whose Web site, under "Who We Are," says the group is the brainchild of seven wheat producers.

This spring NDSU established an AgBiotechnology Center of Excellence. Using NDSU's research capacity as Topp and his ilk suggest squanders taxpayer dollars.

For the benefit of all North Dakota taxpayers, I call upon NDSU to conduct biotechnology assessments that encompass the social, ecological and economic ramifications of biotech adoption and that involve in the decision-making process a rural ethicist, a rural social scientist, an ecologist, an evolutionary biologist - and, of course, farmers and consumers.

The key outcome of these assessments must be the development of a holistic, systems approach for biotechnology in North Dakota.

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Hulse, Fargo, is chairman of the Dakota Resource Council. E-mail hulse@i29.net

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