Biotech Traits, Please

March 28, 2009 07:50 AM
 

An overwhelming majority of U.S. wheat growers want to see biotechnology traits in seed. That's not an idle statement, it's backed up by a recent survey of more than 21,000 wheat producers.

Until now, only anecdotal evidence has suggested how many wheat producers might like biotech traits in their arsenal. National wheat organizations have supported biotech commercialization for some time, but some wheat growers and customers have been outspoken in their resistance to biotech adoption. That's made private technology providers skittish about dedicating the dollars it would take to deliver biotech seed.

"They [seed and technology developers] face a 10-year, $150 million effort to develop, deregulate and launch a trait in wheat,” says Daren Coppock, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG). "Companies want to know that the wheat industry's support is durable and permeates all the way to the grower level.”

The results of the survey, announced at the recent Commodity Classic, show that more than 75% of the wheat growers responding support commercialization of biotechnology in wheat. The producers surveyed each grow more than 500 acres of wheat and have at least 1,000 total crop acres in production. The survey has had a 32% response rate to date, with similar approval rates across states and farm sizes.

NAWG President Karl Scronce says the response rate was higher than anticipated for a mail survey. "It shows to me how important this subject is to U.S. wheat growers,” he says.
Scronce, who grows wheat near Klamath Falls, Ore., says he finds it particularly significant that his home area weighed in so positively for biotech traits since approximately 90% of the wheat grown in the Northwest region is destined to be exported.

"I trust that we can introduce biotech traits with minimal market disruption,” he says. "We are all well aware of our customers' concerns. It is in the interest of all U.S. wheat farmers to provide the type of wheat that our buyers demand—that includes biotech, traditional, natural or organic.”

State by state.
Positive responses were consistent across the Wheat Belt. Of the Kansas farmers responding, 76% are in favor of biotech adoption. North Dakota growers logged in with a slightly lower 69% acceptance rate. Of the growers responding from Texas and Oklahoma, 79% say they favor biotech wheat traits.

Those on the negative side of the question generally worry about consumer acceptance, potential loss of foreign markets and segregation issues. Letters to Farm Journal following a recent article on biotech wheat indicate that growers fear increased seed costs, compared with the practice of planting saved seed.

Still, immediate past president of NAWG David Cleavenger, who farms near Wildorado, Texas, believes the adoption of traits is critical to the long-term viability of the wheat industry. Wheat acreage has lost one-third of its foothold since 1980 as production has shifted to corn and soybeans.

"Increased demand for biofuels accounts for only some of this shift,” he says. "A greater concern is that increases in wheat productivity and economic returns per acre have not kept pace with other major crops.”

Cleavenger says most people associate biotech traits with herbicide resistance, but he doubts that will be the main focus on the traits that are coming down the road. Instead, he envisions traits that would make more efficient use of water and nitrogen and improve pest and disease resistance. "Drought tolerance is something we could really use in Texas,” he notes.

Coppock says the information gained from the survey will be used in discussions with other members of the wheat value chain, trait providers, the media and the public. More information about the survey, a related petition, and NAWG's work on biotech is available at www.wheatworld.org/biotech



You can e-mail Pam Smith at psmith@farmjournal.com.

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