World told of biotech wheat's wonders
Industry fears some Asian customers may resist engineered food
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
PORTLAND, Ore. -- With commercialization of biotech wheat seemingly inevitable, U.S. wheat marketers are already trying to forestall problems in Asian markets that are resistant to biotechnology.
Genetically engineered wheat is expected to become a commercial reality within a decade, but buyers in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan appear opposed to importing it, said Steve Wirsching, director of the U.S. Wheat Associates West Coast office.
"Quite frankly, we have some real challenges in Asia in terms of market acceptance," Wirsching said during the recent Oregon-Idaho Grains Conference in Portland.
Trade partners in these Asian countries need to be assured that non-biotech wheat will continue to be available even when transgenic varieties are commercially produced, he said.
Testing and handling systems have already been developed to segregate genetically engineered corn and soybeans from conventional varieties, Wirsching said.
Even if the governments of these Asian nations don't completely open their ports to biotech wheat, the U.S. industry may be able to avoid losing the vital markets by establishing "tolerances" for the crop, he said.
Under this approach, wheat shipments would be allowed into the country as long as they contains less than the "tolerance" -- probably 0.9 percent to 5 percent -- of the genetically engineered crop, Wirsching said.
Such a system would be necessary because the same equipment would be used to store and transport both biotech and conventional wheat, leading to some level of inadvertent mixing, he said. "Right now, the tolerance is zero."
Biotech wheat is bound to come up against opposition in the U.S. and elsewhere, but top Asian trading partners are especially culturally sensitive about such non-traditional technology, Wirsching said.
For example, surgeries to implant artificial hips and other joints remain rare in Japan even as they've grown fairly common in the Western world, he said.
Not all Asian markets feel equally as strong about biotech wheat, though.
"China doesn't have the same visceral reaction," Wirsching said. "They're actually developing this technology themselves."
However, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are all top-10 consumers of U.S. wheat, each buying between $240 million and $800 million worth of the crop last year, according to federal trade data.
China, meanwhile, is the 27th-largest consumer of U.S. wheat, buying about $87 million worth in 2009.
Genetic engineering is seen as a crucial next step in wheat breeding because without it the crop is expected to lag behind corn and soybeans in yield growth and profit per acre, Wirsching said.
Those crops have already benefited from commercial transgenic varieties, but wheat seems to be headed in the same direction -- researchers in several countries are experimenting with such traits as drought tolerance and reduced nitrogen demand, he said.
"There's a lot of money going into wheat research, and I think that's healthy," said Dan Biggerstaff, wheat industry adviser to the Barkley AG agribusiness firm.
Earlier this year, biotech giant Monsanto bought a 20 percent stake in InterGrain, an Australian firm with which it plans to collaborate on wheat breeding, for an undisclosed sum.
And in 2009, Monsanto bought the WestBred wheat breeding company from Barkley AG for about $45 million.
For the immediate future, Monsanto is more likely to focus on advanced breeding methods, with biotechnology becoming more of a focus in the early 2020s, Biggerstaff said.
For wheat buyers and the public to accept biotech wheat, the industry will need to highlight reduced water use and similar environmental advantages, he said. "It's really important to stress that, because that resonates."