Farm groups counter call for GMO wheat

SASKATOON, Saskatchewan, June 1 (Reuters) - Farm and environment groups opposed to genetically modified wheat are countering a call from other farm organizations for biotech companies to commercially develop it.

Fifteen groups in the top wheat-exporting countries of Canada, the U.S. and Australia released a joint statement of opposition to GMO wheat on Monday. It follows the May 14 call by GM wheat supporters in the three countries for synchronized production of GM wheat.

“Genetic engineering for wheat would be a calamity for all wheat farmers,” said Julie Newman, a member of the Network of Concerned Farmers in Australia. “Consumers across the world have already rejected the idea of GE wheat.”

Monsanto Co MON.N shelved plans for a herbicide-tolerant GMO wheat in 2004 in the face of opposition from U.S. wheat buyers, farmers and exporters such as the Canadian Wheat Board that feared a loss of overseas customers. Major export markets in Europe and Asia are particularly sensitive to concerns about GM food.

The farm groups’ main concern is that loss of markets will hurt prices for farmers, said Katherine Ozer, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based National Family Farm Coalition.

“If (genetically engineered) wheat is released commercially, contamination would be inevitable and markets would view all wheat produced from these areas as GE unless proven to be non-GE,” the groups stated. “Farmers growing GE wheat will take on all of the responsibilities, costs and liabilities, with little available legal recourse to recover their losses.”

Other groups signing the statement include the National Farmers Union, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, the Organic Federation of Australia, Biological Farmers of Australia, Greenpeace and the U.S.-based Organic Consumers Association.

Farmers who support development of GMO wheat say genetic engineering would help wheat stay competitive with other key crops like corn, soybeans and canola that have GM seed options. But GMO opponents counter that unlike GMO crops grown primarily for feed, oil and fiber, wheat is mainly used for human consumption and would be subject to labeling requirements in many countries. (Reporting by Rod Nickel; Editing by John Picinich)