Wheat groups ask USDA to shun biotech critics

WASHINGTON, April 25 (Reuters) - U.S. wheat industry leaders on Friday asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to press ahead with its review of Monsanto Co.'s (NYSE:MON - News) biotech wheat and deny a bid by opponents of genetically modified wheat to block regulatory approval.

Led by the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), the industry delivered a letter Friday to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman asking that the USDA adhere to a strictly scientific review of Monsanto's application for "Roundup Ready" wheat.

Last month, a consortium of U.S. agricultural and environmental groups opposed to the genetically modified wheat filed a legal petition seeking a federal moratorium on the wheat.

The groups said there was widespread foreign opposition to buying biotech wheat as well as various environmental concerns, and demanded that the USDA withhold approval of Monsanto's Roundup Ready wheat variety until the government assesses the complete environmental and economic impacts of the product.

But in the industry letter Friday, U.S. Wheat Associates, an industry export marketing agency, and the Wheat Export Trade Education Committee (WETEC), joined with NAWG to assert that the biotech opponents did not represent the interests of the wheat industry. Moreover, they said, it is not USDA's role to examine issues outside of scientific concerns.

"We don't want a scientific process to become burdened," said NAWG CEO Daren Coppock. "That needs to stay pure."

Coppock said the issues raised by the opponents as potential environmental concerns were largely meritless.

"There is some substantial reaching going on there. The folks filing it are trying to do everything they can to slow down biotechnology. The true farmers have an approach ... of progress, cautious progress, but still progress.

"We're not ready to go plant biotech wheat in the ground tomorrow, but we want to continue to work on biotech issues to successfully launch biotech wheat at the appropriate time," Coppock said.

Monsanto's efforts to seek regulatory approval for a launch of what would be the world's first biotech wheat has generated controversy around the world and studies by U.S. wheat export experts have shown that many large foreign buyers of U.S. wheat will shun U.S. wheat supplies if Roundup Ready wheat is introduced to the marketplace.

Farmers have said they fear they will lose export markets if the biotech wheat is commercialized, but they think the product, and future biotech offerings, could help them grow wheat more profitably.

The leaders of the wheat industry have been working closely with Monsanto to overcome the marketplace concerns and Monsanto has pledged not to start selling the biotech wheat until marketplace acceptance is assured.