Could the Tide Be Turning for Transgenic Wheat?

July 13, 2008 07:00 PM
 
AgWeb.com Editors

With world wheat stocks at historic lows, some longtime opponents of transgenic (often called genetically modified organisms) are coming to the realization that, without increased adaptation of transgenics, the world's farmers cannot produce enough safe, wholesome food to feed its people, according to a media release from Kansas Wheat.  

According to a non-profit, farmer-founded interest group called Growers for Biotechnology, recent comments by European governments are an indication that public opinion is turning the corner. A news article posted on the Web site, www.growersforbiotechnology.org, reports that in late June, Great Britain's Environment Minister, Phil Woolas, addressed the world's food price crisis with this comment: "There is a growing question of whether GM crops can help the developing world out of the current food price crisis. It is a question that we as a nation need to ask ourselves. The debate is already under way. Many people concerned about poverty in the developing world and the environment are wrestling with this issue."

Europe's resistance to transgenic crops has been one of the main obstacles to more rapid adoption of the technology around the world. Developing African nations, even those with mass starvation, have rejected transgenics out of fear that they might lose the opportunity to sell any surplus crops to Europe. Now, with a global food shortage exacerbating hunger around the world, the United Kingdom is beginning to see that Europe's resistance cannot be sustained.

Meanwhile, the chairman of Great Britain's Nestle, the world's biggest food company, has told British lawmakers that transgenic crops are critical to combat poverty and hunger.

"You cannot today feed the world without genetically modified organisms,&" Nestle's Peter Brabeck told the London Financial Times. "We have the means to make agriculture sustainable in the long term. What we don't see for the time being is the political will."

Brabeck said Europe's opposition to biotechnology had encouraged African policymakers to reject transgenic crops. South Africa is the only country on the African continent to commercialize them, growing transgeneic maize, cotton and soybeans.

What are the benefits to wheat farmers should biotechnology be an option for the world's wheat geneticists? Herbicide resistance, tolerance to fungal diseases or drought tolerance all are possibilities. In fact, an Australian researcher told Bloomberg News last week that Australia could have transgenic, drought-tolerant wheat available globally in five to 10 years.

GMO wheat under field trials in Australia's Victoria state contains genes from plants such as corn and moss as well as yeast, Spangenberg said on July 2. Test results show the transgenic grain generated a 20 percent gain in yield compared with non-GMO crops under drought stress, according to German Spangenberg, head of Australia's Victorian AgriBiosciences Center.

Spangenberg said, "This is a very significant increase. GM wheat for drought tolerance will be important to sustain agricultural production into the future."

DuPont Co., the world's second-biggest producer of seeds, plans to engineer wheat and rice to boost yields as rising demand lifts grain prices to records. Growers and buyers have asked Wilmington, Delaware-based DuPont to develop higher-yielding wheat varieties to help keep pace with output of crops such as corn.

Syngenta AG is also developing disease-resistant, transgenic wheat.

Despite this growing momentum, Japan and other Asian countries have vowed to buy non-transgenic wheat and either pay a premium, or rely on their own farmers for wheat production.

According to the farmers of Growers for Biotechnology, the need for more food production will grow exponentially in the next several years, and farmers must have access to new technologies to keep pace with demand.

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