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Norway likes our wheat

A Norwegian trade delegation has come to spring wheat country to remind farmers and grain traders that wheat is the staff of their country's life, with or without herring on the bread.

A Norwegian trade delegation has come to spring wheat country to remind farmers and grain traders that wheat is the staff of their country's life, with or without herring on the bread.

That means Upper Midwest farmers should resist growing the genetically modified wheat that seed companies are developing because Norwegian law prevents its importation, officials of the Unikorn trading company said this week.

"We like the high-quality spring wheat we get from Minnesota and North Dakota. This is technical, but it's the high-quality protein that we need in milling and baking to make our breads," said Helge Remberg, a Unikorn marketing director.

Unikorn is the largest grain trading firm in Norway, jointly owned by the Norwegian government and farmer-owned cooperatives. It imports wheat, soybeans, corn and other agricultural products from around the world.

A 1993 law effectively prohibits the company and other traders from importing grains and oilseeds that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), said Oystein Haslum, administrative director of the Oslo-based trading firm.

"We want to buy where we can get the cleanliness and quality that we want. That means we start with the U.S. and Canada, and if we have to, we turn to Australia and Kazakhstan, and work down from there," Haslum said.

Monsanto, the St. Louis-based chemical and biogenetics company, is developing GMO seed varieties that would be resistant to some of its branded chemicals, such as Roundup herbicide. Other geneticists are exploring seeds that would be resistant to other popular farm chemicals, resistant to plant diseases or which add higher nutrient content to the wheat.

Regardless of the purpose, Unikorn's Remberg said Norway is among several countries that won't import the genetically altered grains.

The Unikorn group met Tuesday with AGP Grain, based at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, and toured the spring wheat trading floor at the exchange. The Norwegians also had meetings scheduled this week with Cargill, in Minnetonka, and with CHS Inc., in Inver Grove Heights.

The Minnesota-based companies often partner with Unikorn when the Norwegians buy spring wheat and other Northern-grown grains. Most of those purchases are shipped through Duluth, said John Comford, marketing manager for AGP Grain.

GP, the former grain-merchandising unit of International Multifoods, now is a subsidiary of Ag Processing Inc., a large cooperative based in Omaha, Neb.

The Norwegian wheat trade is relatively small, compared with southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, said a spokeswoman for the U.S. Wheat Associates trade promotion group in Washington, D.C. The country takes about 200,000 to 300,000 tons of wheat most years, although it hasn't purchased U.S.-grown wheat in the current year.

GP's Comford, however, said this country has about 450,000 tons of spring wheat trade at risk with other countries that share Norway's aversion to GMO wheat.

What's more, Comford said the Norwegian wheat trade is greater than noted in government statistics because exports aren't tracked through transhipping ports to the final consumers. AGP ships about 200,000 to 300,000 tons of wheat to Norway through its port facilities in Antwerp, Belgium, most years, he said. "Then there are Cargill, CHS and ConAgra doing the same kind of deals."

Monsanto is seeking federal regulatory approval for issuing the new wheat seeds for commercial production, but said it won't until the United States and Canada both are in agreement on GMO use.

If that happens, U.S. grain merchants would need to operate a costly process of keeping GMO wheat and non-GMO wheat separated through storage and transportation, the Unikorn team said.

Norwegian resistance to GMOs is based more on environmental concerns about letting the organisms lose to breed with local grain crops than from concerns over human health, the grain delegation said.

But that becomes the awkward conflict that farmers and their customers have over the new seeds. While people have environmental concerns about releasing GMOs into the natural plants, the GMO seeds are helping farmers cut back total use of chemicals on crops that have been responsible for polluting water supplies and streams in past years.

Minnesota corn farmers, for instance, used more than 16.5 million pounds of herbicide and insecticide chemicals on their 7.5 million acres of corn in 1996, when GMO corn seeds were just starting to become popular. The Minnesota Agricultural Statistics Service found that farmers used less than 8.3 million pounds of chemicals on their 7.2 million acres of corn in 2002, the last year for which there is data.