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HERBICIDE-RESISTANT SOYBEAN GETS GOVERNMENT’S BLESSING

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A soybean that can stand a dousing with a popular weedkiller is the newest genetically engineered product to be deemed safe by the Agriculture Department.

The department said the glyphosate-tolerant soybean poses no threat to other plants. At least 11/2 years will pass before Monsanto Co. of St. Louis will have beans for farmers to plant.Glyphosate, another Monsanto product sold commercially as Roundup, is the most widely used weedkiller in the world.

Farmers like glyphosate because it kills most weeds and is inexpensive. As herbicides go, it is relatively friendly to the environment, breaking down more quickly than other chemicals.

But Roundup normally can't distinguish weeds from soybeans. So Monsanto added a gene to the crop plant that will let it resist the herbicide.

The company now has to get approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to use Roundup on soybeans. Monsanto also must grow enough seeds for farmers to plant.

Spokeswoman Karen Marshall said the company doesn't plan to sell the seeds until after 1995.

The approval is the second of a genetically engineered crop under a year-old policy intended to cut the time it takes to approve products.

The department had approved a genetically engineered tomato, designed to stay ripe longer, in October 1992 under a different set of rules. In February, officials cleared the way for sale of a cotton that tolerates the weedkiller bromoxynil.

The herbicide, sold as Buctril, was developed by Rhone-Poulenc, a French company with U.S. operations. Supporters say the herbicide is more effective, without damaging or leaving residues in the plant, and will cause growers to spend less on the chemicals. Environmentalists oppose the pesticide, claiming it causes birth defects.

The soybean doesn't require Food and Drug Administration approval, but Monsanto says it is consulting with the agency.

The department has tentatively found a virus-resistant squash to be safe but will hold a meeting June 21 to hear public testimony about the product.