By Ross Korves - Economic Policy Analyst, Truth About Trade & Technology
Virginia Tech University and Monsanto recently announced a collaborative wheat breeding effort in which Monsanto will gain access to Virginia Tech’s wheat germplasm pool and Monsanto will provide Virginia Tech with current advanced breeding technologies and new ones as they are developed. Attributes that affect yield will be the initial breeding focus, including Fusarium head blight (scab) and drought tolerance. This agreement is the latest development in the U.S. over the last five years that will affect wheat breeding around the world.
The National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and the North American Millers’ Association held a Wheat Summit in September 2006 to discuss the 30 percent decline in U.S. wheat acres planted since the early 1980s, the fall off in wheat’s share of U.S. field crop receipts from 20 percent to 11 percent, flat exports and shrinking domestic use. In June of that year the two groups plus U.S. Wheat Associates (USW), the export market development arm of the industry, and the now-disbanded Wheat Export Trade Education Committee released Addressing the Competitiveness Crisis in Wheat that served as the basis for the Wheat Summit. Follow-up summits were held in April of 2007 and October 2009, with the last summit focused on research and biotechnology. In September 2009, NAWG, the Millers’ Association, USW, the Independent Bakers’ Association and the Wheat Foods Council released The Case for Biotech Wheat: How the Introduction of Modern Genetic Technology in Wheat Can Help Address a Competitiveness Crisis.
Based on the activities of the past five years, NAWG has established a goal of increasing wheat yields by 20 percent by 2018. The U.S. three-year average yield for 2007-09 was 43.2 bushels per acre. A 20 percent increase would be 8.6 bushel and put average yields at 51.8 bushels per acre in 2018. The three-year average yield over the previous eight years increased from 41.6 bushels in 1999-01 to 43.2 bushels in 2007-09, a 3.8 percent increase. Over that same time period, U.S. three-year average corn yields increased by 14.7 percent and soybeans by 9.7 percent.
The agreement between Monsanto and Virginia Tech University reflects unique characteristics of wheat breeding in the U.S. The agreement is non-exclusive, meaning Monsanto and Virginia Tech can both work with other public and private wheat breeding efforts. The university will continue its current public breeding program for certified-seed varieties marketed by local, state and regional seed companies. These programs are common in wheat production and the NAWG and USW Joint Biotechnology Committee’s Wheat Industry Biotechnology Principles for Commercialization considers the certified-seed model as the "most acceptable to the value chain and is the preferred approach." Representatives of the Virginia wheat industry met with Virginia Tech and Monsanto to understand the detail of the agreement before it was signed.
The university will have immediate access to marker assisted breeding technology for trait and line selection to speed-up conventional breeding to improve yields. As unique value-added traits are developed, it will also have timely access to them. Monsanto reentered the wheat breeding business in 2009 after suspending an earlier biotech wheat program in 2004 after receiving mixed messages from the wheat industry on the market acceptance of biotech wheat.
The wheat industry appears to be following two breeding development paths that use new technology to speed up conventional breeding to increase yields and resist pests and develops biotechnology tools to maximize the achievable production of the new varieties. Monsanto is a logical partner with Virginia Tech University and other public breeders. In June, Monsanto announced a similar effort with Kansas State University. In 2009 the company purchased WestBred, a private wheat breeding company, and its library of germplasm. This year, Monsanto acquired a minority interest in InterGrain, the leading Australian cereal breeder partially owned by the Western Australia state government.
According to the NAWG website, other companies have become more active in U.S. wheat breeding. In 2008, Syngenta bought two wheat seed companies to add to its existing wheat business, and in 2009 Bayer CropSciences and Dow AgroScience increased their activities in U.S. wheat breeding. Bayer also formalized a long-term agreement with CSIRO, Australia’s national research organization, focusing on higher yields, efficient nutrient utilization and drought tolerance. In April of this year, Syngenta announced a five-year, public-private partnership with CIMMYT, an international wheat research organization, including native and biotech traits, hybrid wheat and the use of seeds and crop protection products. These international arrangements will allow for new knowledge and technology to be used to respond to specific local wheat breeding needs.
Wheat currently accounts for about 20 percent of the calories consumed in the world, with one acre in four of the major grains and oilseeds worldwide devoted to wheat. About 20 percent of current world wheat production enters international trade. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimates that world population will increase from the current 6.8 billion people to 9.1 billion by 2050. Total world food output will need to increase by 70-100 percent, with most of that increase coming from higher yields on existing cropland. Dry weather this summer in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and neighboring countries and in Western Australia shows the need to improve drought tolerance. The continued migration of the virulent stem rust Ug99 also requires a worldwide effort in wheat breeding.
The deliberate approaches to new wheat breeding technology taken by the wheat industry in the U.S. have created the opportunity for increased funding needed in wheat breeding consistent with the existing seed distribution systems. The owners of that new technology are seeking a return on investment consistent with the risks incurred with technology development. Wheat growers are looking for varieties that increase yields at competitive costs with other crops. Wheat consumers want ample supplies and high quality at affordable prices. These new relationships on wheat breeding have the potential to provide a win-win-win for all three groups.
Ross Korves joined Truth About Trade & Technology in 2004 and writes a weekly economic and trade policy analysis. Mr. Korves served the American Farm Bureau Federation as an Economist from 1980 – 2004. He served as Chief Economist from April 2001 through September 2003 and held the title of Senior Economist from September 2003 through August 2004. His analyses can be found at http://truthabouttrade.org/news/editorials/trade-policy-analysis