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Future of biotech wheat lies with growers, providers

By Jennifer Latzke

As the wheat industry continues its long progress toward the development of a commercially viable biotech wheat seed, it's important to recognize where the industry has been, as well as where it hopes to end up.

U.S. Wheat Associates Vice President, Director West Coast Office John Oades said discussions over biotech wheat varieties have been going on in one way or another for more than a decade. Many segments in the industry have had differing opinions, he said, on just what the solution should be to the question of biotech wheat. The industry as a whole, though, has come a long way from the early days of biotech research.

Where we've been

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, scientists around the country were rolling out one research project after another to use new biotechnology techniques to develop genetically modified crops. Biotech varieties of corn, rice, soybeans and cotton were hitting the market and farmers were excited about the prospect of raising crops with new genetic traits that would aid in their production, or boost their yields and quality. Wheat, however, had yet to be genetically modified with these new techniques.

In May 1992, scientists at the University of Florida and Monsanto announced the development of the first genetically altered wheat in a closed research facility. Using a gene-gun, the scientists injected a foreign gene into wheat cells and then transferred the cells to laboratory dishes to develop. In this case the foreign gene used was provided by Monsanto, and produced an enzyme that would essentially make the wheat resistant to herbicides, such as Roundup.

Shortly after the announcement, the complaints started rolling in from many segments of the wheat industry. Concerned about losing their foreign market shares, farm and consumer groups such as the Center for Food Safety and the Family Farm Coalition filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to suspend the development of biotech wheat, specifically Monsanto's hard red spring wheat that would be Roundup Ready.

Throughout the 1990s, the debate over biotech trait research continued. Overseas attitudes toward transgenic crops were wary at best. Consumers in Japan and the European Union felt there wasn't enough research into the long-term safety of biotech crops grown for food.

Also, there wasn't a clear-cut path of segregation throughout the wheat supply chain in the United States to ensure biotech and non-biotech wheat wouldn't be commingled accidentally. Japan had even gone on record as saying it would accept no wheat, conventional or biotech, from any nation that grows biotech wheat within its borders.

"The discussion reached a crescendo in 2000," Oades said. "There were considerable differences of opinion within the U.S. industry."

In May 2004, Monsanto finally shelved its genetically engineered Roundup Ready spring wheat, citing economic factors such as a 23 percent decline in U.S. and Canadian spring wheat acreage since 1997 and a lack of "widespread industry alignment" behind biotech wheat. Instead, Monsanto focused on improving biotech traits in corn, soybeans and cotton investments for the company. According to company reports, Monsanto's investment in wheat in fiscal year 2004 was less than $5 million, or less than 1 percent of its $500 million research and development budget.

During this same period, Syngenta had also been researching a spring wheat resistant to fusarium disease, according to reports. However, the company was more concerned with attaining market acceptance for their variety, and keeping it out of the commercial pipeline at the time.

BASF was another company researching and developing a biotech wheat variety, specifically a drought-resistant variety that would work well in Australia. It was far from commercialization, though.

So, by 2005, progress in transgenic wheat research was essentially halted by the major technology providers. Some wheat growers and their representative organizations in the United States continued to hold out hope, though, that a biotech wheat variety could be safely developed and commercially introduced--in the future.

Where we are

That future turned out to be just a few years later. In 2007, the Joint Biotechnology Committee of U.S. Wheat Associates and the National Association of Wheat Growers passed resolutions that essentially opened the door for companies to resume their biotech wheat research.

Oades said producers and their leaders in the various wheat industry organizations in the United States came together on the issue namely for the continued sustainability of wheat production.

"We need to work forward in developing and commercializing biotech wheat," he said. "I think the all time peak experience with wheat prices and commodities gave pause to many customers around the world."

Oades said it comes down to sustainability of wheat as a commodity. "The point we're making with our customers is that with the slow and steady decline of the planting average over the last 25 years 1 percent per year declining acreage, is increasing, but not as fast as consumption is growing."

Faced with these figures, NAWG and the rest of the U.S. wheat industry released its "Biotechnology Principles for Commercialization" in November 2008. This road map is in place to help biotech trait providers communicate with growers and the end wheat users in introducing any commercial biotech variety.

This seven-point plan begins with a dialogue between the technology provider and the USW/NAWG Joint Biotechnology Committee before the company submits for regulatory approvals in the United States. This discussion will allow wheat organizations to begin their domestic and international education efforts of their customers, and minimize market disruption concerns of U.S. wheat growers.

"Millers in the United States and producers and leaders have brought their thinking together," he added. "They've agreed that if we are to serve our customer base, we have to think about new approaches. Is this perfect? Well, every solution has problems." Oades added that there is still some resistance in the European Union and Japan to transgenic crops, and so it will be critical to keep communication open between customers and suppliers.

"As developments advance, we need to keep customers aware of those developments so there are no surprises coming to market," Oades said.

With U.S. producers fully committed to biotech wheat, it's also important to note that the industry isn't turning its back on conventionally bred wheats. The topic of segregation has arisen, though, Oades said. "We have made it clear in our preparations to customers that while the U.S. is fully committed to producing biotech wheat, we will continue to produce non-biotech wheats, just as it's true in corn, soybeans and canola." The key point, he added, is that there must be tolerances in place for low-level accidental presence of biotech wheat in conventional sales, such as those for corn and soybeans. Oades said those tolerances can be set by contract negotiations.

"Biotech companies, the scientific community and governments need to work through problems together," Oades said. "Change is most often met with skepticism. We must continue to widen our communication to bring key customers to the table and share good solid refereed science."

Where we hope to be

Wheat is behind the seed industry in developing a transgenic trait that will help growers or end users. Since those early days of biotech research, more competitive biotech crops have been encroaching on what was once traditional wheat acreage, Oades said, simply because they are more profitable or reliable for farmers to grow.

"As the biotech events have been introduced into more and more crops that compete with wheat, the planted acres devoted to them will continue to accelerate," Oades said. "With our own biotech events available in wheat, we can turn the situation around and make wheat more competitive."

Besides helping a farmer's bottom line, biotech traits may also improve or sustain wheat production in areas affected by drought and disease.

"Whatever tools might be introduced through biotech can help us maintain the most viable industry for the needs of our customers," Oades said. "Leading candidates today seem to be drought tolerance in Australia. Another hot topic today is nitrogen utilization. Fertilizer, or nitrogen, is the biggest cost for wheat producers. If significant increases in the effective use of nitrogen in the soil by the wheat crop can be found, that can help make wheat more competitive and sustainable in the future.

"Perhaps the most attention is given to heat tolerance, now," Oades added. "We get peak periods of heat, and we may have adequate soil moisture but the heat overwhelms the plant at the end of maturation. This can reduce its quality and yield."

Competing crops already have these types of production-centered traits available, he said. "Drought tolerance will be out next year in corn, and that's a biotech trait," Oades said. "My guess is that will push corn farther west and north into traditional wheat areas. The encroachment of corn the last 10 years has been marching west and north. Wheat has no similar tool to remain competitive against corn."

Oades said in order for the United States to continue to be a leader on the international wheat market producers need wheat varieties with the ability to grow under various conditions, in significant quantities, and maintaining a quality that the country is known for around the world. Therefore, despite the challenges in its past and present, research into biotech wheat varieties has a future full of promise for growers and consumers.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807, or by e-mail at jlatzke@hpj.com.

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