We could be planting genetically enhanced varieties of wheat by now and been through the complaining and gnashing of teeth from food companies and importers. Monsanto’s decision to stop almost 10 years ago was driven by pushback from U.S. producers fearing domestic and foreign buyers would not use it or accept products made from a transgenic food grain.
Now, many U.S. producers are reconsidering and the world is realizing that genetic modification is beneficial technology that is here to stay. That doesn’t mean it will be easy—in fact, it may be harder this time around.
Despite publicity about major food companies promising their goal is to have GMO free products, the reality of food processing and marketing companies is simple: Source the lowest cost inputs that meet minimum quality standards. Be it Gerber or General Mills, they want their product to be differentiated in the marketplace but they don’t want to pay more for the ingredients. Profit margins on many brands of cereal, cake mixes and baby food are huge, but they have always been high so the industry has come to expect it. Their cost is in advertising rather than manufacturing.
When a new GMO grain looks like it may be approved by the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency, the first reaction is that consumers won’t buy it. When it goes on the market, the big players take a hard look at whether it is compatible with their manufacturing process and whether it can be purchased at a competitive price. If market share is threatened, then, and only then, is there a move to reject it.
Gerber made a big deal of discontinuing GMO grains in baby food even when owned by Novartis (currently Syngenta), who was developing GMO grains. The reasoning, expressed by company food scientists, was not there was any health risk, but fear it would hurt market share. Anti-GMO crusaders confronted General Mills, makers of Cheerios, showing GMO products in their tests. Since Cheerios are made from oats that are GMO free, there had to be a mistake. Wrongo Reindeer! The manufacturer was adding GMO starches and sweeteners because they were cheaper and more available. You can say the same thing about Wheaties that are made with non-GMO wheat.
Farmers, in the arid regions of the world, need wheat to be a profitable crop to grow. Encroachment by GM crops has become evident in the last 20 years. GMO products, in the first generation, benefit the grower by being herbicide or insect resistant. Killing weeds and bugs allows the crop to grow and yield in adverse conditions. The second generation, now being seen in soybeans and corn, is able to take on characteristics that are good for the consumer. High oleic soybeans from DuPont-Pioneer (Plenish Brand) are able to yield oil that is free of trans-fats. That is a huge leap forward in marketability of new generation crops, which will pay for research to develop more.
Wheat is now far behind GMO corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets and rice. Wheat is a complex plant and efforts to hybridize or breed in insect resistance have been difficult or impossible with traditional techniques. Traditional wheat production could be viable if the price was high enough but income per acre is usually more for other crops. In the world market, wheat has to be very competitive because so many countries grow and export the grain.
Keeping wheat non-GMO will not stop the debate on fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides or any other input a farmer uses. Even his carbon footprint will be used against him.
Wheat is a food grain with most of the production going directly to human consumption. That may make the transition to GMO more difficult. If things follow the same course for wheat as other crops, the first years will be challenging as users will attempt to source cheap GMO free grain, even if they have to make bold generalizations about its makeup based on its origin. In the first GMO soybean years of the late 1990s, Unilever sourced soybeans from Brazil because GMOs were illegal in that country. They didn’t bother to test to see if the seed was coming in from Argentina and was Roundup Ready.
At about 20 percent penetration, the competitive advantage of GMO wheat should kick in. Buyers will be placed in a position of having to source lower quality, non-GMO raw material from less dependable suppliers than the United States and Canada. Don’t kid yourself, GMO wheat will be grown on both sides of the imaginary line between our countries. If it shows an economic advantage, keeping GMO wheat seed from crossing the Canadian border will be harder than keeping undocumented immigrants from crossing the Mexican border.
There will be studies that show GMO wheat to be less nutritious and more harmful than traditional grain and there will be studies that show just the opposite. The developing world will increase demand due to rising population and income, and those countries with the lowest cost of production will sell to them. A few years after introduction there will be more GMO wheat than that which is traditionally grown.
Wheaties won’t turn into the breakfast food of zombies; it will remain the same highly processed and generally nutritious food it is today. Oats will probably not become GMO nor will amaranth and quinoa because the acreage is not large enough to spend millions to bring it to market.
Those who say unmodified seed won’t be available to growers miss the mark. Penetration of GM crops has been by choice and not by mandate. Replay your decision to plant Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996 through 2000. It came down to profitability and ease of farming larger acreage. If farmers want to grow traditional hybrids or varieties, the marketplace will have seed available. Farmers who produce a commodity make their income from margin per acre. GMO grain is not a size neutral technology. It favors larger farms that can keep costs low and make a profit at a lower price than their competitors next door or halfway around the world. Companies who produce seed or cereal are the same.
Regulatory approval of modified wheat could be politically influenced in the decade ahead. Liberal governments in rich countries make strange decisions. If population grows as predicted in the developing world there will be both need and demand. There is no guarantee the first genetically modified wheat will come from the United States. Europe or South Africa have technology to bring it forth if they have the will. As a farmer, you won’t have to plant it. As a consumer, you will not have to eat it, but GMO wheat is coming.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 40 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail for him to High Plains Journal.