GMO wheat discovery sparks industry debate in California
By TIM HEARDEN
ANDERSON, Calif. -- Though California has hardly been impacted by it at all, the discovery of biotech wheat in an Oregon field has exposed divergent opinions within the industry here about the potential for developing such wheat.
The Golden State shipped only 198 tons of soft white wheat -- the variety suspended by Japan and South Korea following the discovery -- among the 269,443 tons of wheat sent overseas in the 2011-2012 marketing year, according to the California Wheat Commission.
Further, wheat prices on the whole have been relatively stable despite a federal investigation that was launched after a grower reported a smattering of glyphosate-resistant wheat in his field. Tests revealed the plants contained the "Roundup Ready" trait.
"I think people are still trying to figure out what happened," said Janice Cooper, the wheat commission's executive director. "Once we know that, we'll know what to do. But absent some hard information about how this wheat ended up where it did, it's hard to know."
Whatever happens in Oregon, however, wheat producer Jim Crisp suggested that Roundup Ready wheat could someday be "commercially acceptable" as the global demand for food increases.
"I see it as a big bunch of hype and drama," Crisp, owner of Crisp Warehouse in Stratford, Calif., said of the Oregon discovery. "The world has rejected the idea of genetically modified wheat ... (but) people eat and have been eating GMO products all the time and there's not so much hype about it.
"One of the standard ideas ... is that there's not enough financial incentives for the rest of the world to accept a GMO-type wheat because they don't own any of the patents," he said. "At some point in time, we're going to need more wheat than we can grow ... and all of the sudden it will be commercially acceptable."
But Cooper said she doesn't expect glyphosate-resistant wheat to become available anytime soon.
"Our understanding is that project was shelved and the traits that are being worked on by the various companies are not Roundup Ready," she said. "There are other kinds of things, like yield or drought resistance, but companies are not discussing that. It's very business confidential, so we haven't heard what they're working on."
Wheat growers in California are expected to produce 816,000 tons on 320,000 acres this year -- a tiny fraction of the 2.27 billion bushels produced per year on nearly 46 million acres nationwide, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture.
The production of Durum wheat, which is grown specifically for a high-protein flour used to make noodle products, is forecast at 268,000 tons, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. A large proportion of California's common wheat is used for milling into bread flour or general purpose flour, although a significant amount each year is sold for feed, the state's wheat commission has explained.
Among California's exports in 2011-2012, the largest portion -- 166,055 tons -- was Durum wheat headed for Italy and Nigeria, according to the commission. In addition, more than 90,000 tons of hard red winter and summer wheat was sent to about 10 countries combined, including more than 25,000 tons of the two varieties to China, the panel reported.
Much of the wheat grown and milled in California stays in the state. Redding, Calif., farmer Greg Hawes grows wheat to sell as hay at his store, Hawes Ranch and Farm Supply in nearby Anderson. He said it's "pretty scary" that something like the Oregon GMO wheat discovery could happen.
"I'm sure the confidence for our buyers (overseas) has gone down if we allow that to happen," he said.
But Scott Finley, who rotates with wheat and alfalfa in Fort Jones, Calif., said he believes Roundup Ready wheat could be developed someday.
"I think it's going to be one of those deals where everybody is just going to have to get used to some of this stuff because I think it's coming down the pike," he said. "I'll bet you 50 percent of the growers in this area planted Roundup Ready alfalfa."
California Wheat Commission: http://www.californiawheat.org