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Wheat industry pushes for biotech traits

Sean Ellis
A significant amount of money is being spent by Monsanto and other companies on biotech wheat research. The U.S. industry sees genetically engineered wheat as the answer to keep up with corn and soybean acres, which have increased at the expense of wheat since biotech corn and soybeans were introduced commercially in 1996.

U.S. farmers need new and better varieties of wheat with genetically engineered traits, industry representatives say.

At stake, they say, is the well-being of the U.S. wheat industry, which has seen its acreage shrink during the past two decades.

Since genetically engineered corn and soybeans were commercially introduced in 1996, many farmers have abandoned growing wheat. The new types of corn and soybeans are easier to grow, require less pesticides and produce more profit than wheat, which is not genetically engineered, said Idaho Wheat Commission Executive Director Blaine Jacobson.

In 1996, U.S. farmers grew nearly 70 million acres of wheat, but by last year that number had shrunk 18 percent, according to the USDA. The shrinkage has given rise to industry concerns that wheat is on a path to becoming a minor crop and losing its share of the marketplace unless it can become more competitive financially with corn and soybeans.

To gain back some of those acres and be competitive with corn and soybeans, Jacobson added, the industry needs wheat varieties with biotech traits.

Biotech traits can include glyphosate resistance that allows farmers to kill weeds without damaging their crop. Or they can provide drought and disease resistance in wheat varieties and offer the potential to increase yields and reduce farmers’ dependence on pesticides.

Crops that have been genetically modified by inserting specific traits into their genetic code are alternately referred to as genetically engineered, biotech or genetically modified organisms.


A matter of time


Jacobson and many other industry leaders believe it’s only a matter of time before wheat with biotech traits is commercially available.

“Biotech wheat is coming. I don’t know the variety or the class or the trait, but it’s coming,” said northern Idaho farmer Bill Flory. “And the advantages will be across the board, not only to the producer, but to the environment and to the end user as well.”

The large amount of technological investment occurring in the corn and soybean industries as a result of GMO research has also caused the wheat industry to lose some of the best plant scientists to other crops, Jacobson said.

“Without biotech traits, innovation in the wheat industry will languish (and) the wheat industry will not be able to attract better scientists,” he said.

While people can argue the benefits and drawbacks of genetically engineered crops, wheat’s loss of acres to corn and soybeans is well-documented.

When the first corn and soybean varieties with GMO traits were commercially released in 1996, wheat, corn and soybean acres in the U.S. were roughly the same, ranging between 62 million and 71 million each.

Seventeen years later, the number of corn acres in the U.S. totals 97 million — an increase of nearly 26 million acres. Soybean acres now total 77 million, up about 15 million acres.

But during the same period, the number of acres devoted to wheat shrank to about 56 million, according to the USDA.

Wheat industry leaders say the reason for the shift in crops since 1996 is directly related to biotechnology.

In the last 10 years, average corn yields have increased by 16 bushels per acre, while wheat yields have increased by only a quarter of a bushel per acre, said Washington Grain Commission member Dana Herron.

According to the USDA, 88 percent of corn and 94 percent of soybeans grown in this country have GMO traits.

“Corn and soybeans are taking acres away from wheat because of biotechnology,” said Herron, co-owner of Tri-State Seed.

“We’re way behind and acres and trend-line yields show it,” Flory said. “The loss of acres is for real; there’s no doubt about it.”


Simple economics


The reason for the shift in acres is one of simple economics, said Declo, Idaho, farmer Mark Darrington. In areas where all three crops can be grown, farmers can make more money growing corn or soybeans because their GMO traits make them more profitable.

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the national average net return per acre in 2012 was $485 for corn, $330 for soybeans and $142 for wheat.

“As a grower, why wouldn’t you choose a crop that lessens your risk and one with more profitability in it?” Darrington said. “Corn and soybeans are more profitable per acre than wheat. We’re businessmen. If we can see a higher profit with less risk, that’s the decision we would make.”

Biotech traits in wheat can help change that equation and make it more competitive with corn and soybeans, Jacobson said.


Playing catch-up


Herron said it’s incorrect to say the wheat industry needs to play catch-up with corn and soybeans on the biotech issue.

“The wheat industry does not need to play catch-up. The wheat industry is ready to rock and roll,” he said. “We’re waiting for consumers and our customers to play catch-up.”

Monsanto began conducting research on GMO wheat in 1997 but stopped in 2004.

Both Monsanto and industry officials said the U.S. wheat industry was split over the issue at the time and there was concern about Canada and Australia using the GMO issue against American farmers in foreign markets such as Japan, which balk at buying some genetically modified commodities.

The fear was played out this summer, when unauthorized GM wheat was found in an eastern Oregon field. The discovery — the source of the seed has not yet been found by the USDA — caused Japan and South Korea, two of U.S. wheat’s largest export markets, to suspend their purchases of some classes of wheat. Though purchases have resumed, soft white wheat must now undergo testing to ensure no genetically modified grain is present.

Because of the reticence among wheat growers and others, Monsanto had earlier decided to target its research dollars other places, said Anthony Osborne, the company’s global wheat lead. But in 2009, the industry reached out to Monsanto and other companies, asking them to resume research on biotech wheat. That same year, the U.S., Canadian and Australian wheat industries signed a joint letter supporting the commercialization of biotech wheat.

The letter stated that it is “in all of our best interests to introduce biotech wheat varieties in a coordinated fashion to minimize market disruptions and shorten the period of adjustment.”

Monsanto re-entered the wheat research business because of the industry’s outreach. Its current efforts focus on improving wheat productivity through biotechnology as well as the use of advanced breeding and improved agronomic practices, Osborne said.

“Our focus is on those three areas, not just biotechnology,” he said. “We certainly think we can advance wheat productivity with biotech traits.”

Monsanto has conducted small-scale, entry-level field trials of genetically engineered wheat the past two seasons, but the company’s biotech work in wheat is in the early research phases and commercial approval is about a decade away, Osborne said.

Osborne said the money invested in biotech wheat research by Monsanto and other companies is the result of the industry’s demand for it.

Monsanto’s biotech wheat research involves a broad range of traits, including herbicide resistance, disease and insect resistance, drought tolerance, nitrogen use efficiency and yield increases.

The challenge for growers, Jacobson said, is to open the door to genetically engineered wheat so the industry can remain competitive, but to not move so fast that it causes important overseas markets to close their doors.

“If it moves too quick, then certain markets will close down,” he said. “On the other hand, if it takes too long, growers will stop growing it and move on to other crops. So the two need to move along together.”


Alliance forms


To help address that dilemma, wheat industry leaders established the Wheat Innovation Alliance, a diverse group of people with a stake in biotech wheat, including producers, technology providers, millers, bakers and retailers.

The group supports the use of biotech wheat as a way to grow more and better wheat with less impact on the environment.

The alliance is working closely with U.S. trade partners and other groups to address their concerns, said Darrington, a spokesman for the group.

“We’ve tried not to leave anyone out of the discussion that has a stake,” he said.

Darrington said the commercial production of biotech wheat cannot proceed faster than consumer or market acceptance and one of the main goals of the alliance is to ensure both groups that GMO wheat is necessary and safe.

“Until we get market signals that there’s a demand for it, growers will be hesitant to demand it,” he said.

Consumer and market acceptance is a main focus for Monsanto, Osborne said.

“There’s no value created for a farmer if we release a wheat variety that yields 20 percent more (but) he doesn’t have a market for it,” he said.

Many people involved in the industry see biotech wheat as inevitable and necessary to feed a growing world population.

The global population is projected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, Herron said.

“Please tell me how in hell we’re going to feed them,” he said. “Five million people under the age of 5 die each year of starvation. We need more food and, yes, we need GMO food.”


GMO opponents


The inevitability of genetically engineered wheat is not shared by everyone, especially opponents of GMO food products.

Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, believes many European and Asian markets will remain reluctant to accept GMO wheat.

“There are economic interests that want it but a lot of your rank-and-file farmers are (anxiously) looking at their markets,” he said. “We’re knowingly alienating our customer base.”

Kastel believes GMO wheat will “implode” because of many reasons, including the possible development of weed and disease resistance to GMO crops, and customer rejection.

“It’s going to collapse under its own weight,” he predicted.

But Darrington said the use of biotechnology will allow farmers to use less chemicals and fertilizer while producing more wheat at a lower cost.

“It’s not only growers who are going to ultimately benefit, it’s the world,” he said. “I don’t see it as inevitable, but I see it as being in the best interests of the consumer masses.”

Wheat genetically modified by Monsanto to resist some herbicides is demonstrated in a 2012 field trial. The wheat shown on the left had herbicide-resistant traits while the wheat on the right did not.



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