, Farm Journal Seeds & Production Editor
Few topics stir the pot more than biotech wheat. Farm Journal's coverage of the overwhelming support shown in a National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) petition regarding support for commercialization of biotech traits last spring resulted in an outcry from our wheat grower readers. Contrary to the positive response shown in the petition, these producers voiced concerns about consumer acceptance of biotech wheat; others simply didn't want to pay for the technology.
After years of similar debate, the issue is now taking an interesting turn with the announcement that Monsanto has acquired the assets of WestBred, a Montana-based company that specializes in wheat germplasm across all classes. Carl Casale, Monsanto's Executive Vice President of Strategy and Operations, says the transaction will allow WestBred to apply Monsanto's expertise in conventional and marker-assisted breeding tools to develop higher-yielding varieties.
"Longer term, following these breeding advancements, WestBred will look to offer biotech traits, which will initially focus on drought tolerance, nitrogen use and higher yield,” says Casale. "We will explore herbicide-tolerant and disease-resistant biotech traits, but the company does not plan to include further development of the first-generation Roundup Ready trait in wheat.”
Farmers will remember that Monsanto exited the wheat business in 2004 after an effort to commercialize Roundup Ready technology in the crop. Casale says that retreat was based on the dramatic decline in spring wheat acreage coupled with a lack of industry alignment for the company's technology being applied to wheat.
The NAWG petition showed more than 75% of the wheat growers responding to the survey support commercialization of biotechnology in wheat. The producers surveyed each grow more than 500 acres of wheat and at least 1,000 total crop acres in production. The survey has had a 32% response rate with approval rates similar across states and farm sizes.Organizations representing the wheat industry in the United States, Canada and Australia also recently announced that they will work toward the goal of synchronized commercialization of biotech traits in the wheat crop.
Casale says evidence that the industry is coming together on the issue is one reason Monsanto was willing to reinvest in the crop. The current WestBred transaction is valued at $45 million and Casale estimates each trait brought to market represents a $100 million and 8 to 10 year investment.
Separate the wheat from the chaff and Casale observes that the increased volatility of wheat supply and price shocks of the past year—coupled with ongoing competition for land from corn and soybeans—has cast wheat into a more global spotlight. "We have developed technology in other row crops that we believe may have some practical portability to wheat and we've always noted if conditions were right we would consider re-entering the wheat space,” he says.
Monsanto is also establishing a Wheat Development Advisory Group to be made up of representatives throughout the wheat value chain. This group will provide Monsanto feedback on proposed traits and advise them on attributes that are needed to improve productivity and sustainability of wheat.
The bottom line is it will likely be a decade before growers see new biotech traits at the farm gate. Casale notes that even the public sector has begun to protect their intellectual property with regard to wheat germplasm. "We're seeing a sea change as we speak and I think the public institutions are leading it and we are following,” he adds.