Wheat Crunch

February 20, 2009 11:35 AM

Corn and soybeans have it. So does rice and sugar beets. Even the papaya has been genetically modified. Yet wheat seriously lags in genetic improvements compared with corn and soybeans.

"The Corn Belt is moving 10 miles a year into the Wheat Belt," says Rebecca Bratter, U.S. Wheat Associates director of policy. "Competitiveness is the principal driver in the current resurgence of interest in biotech wheat." There have been early efforts to deliver genetic traits. Monsanto Company abandoned its herbicide-resistant wheat program in 2004. Syngenta has developed a biotech wheat trait for resistance to Fusarium.

Anne Burt, Syngenta communications and public affairs, says the product has performed well in field trials but is still in early development stages and there's been no decision to put it on a commercial path. "Our research shows strong grower interest, but market acceptance is still a key question, and dialogue with key stakeholders is ongoing," Burt says.

The time is now. Daren Coppock, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers, believes the climate is ripe for acceptance. Last year's high wheat prices, wheat shortages and resulting food price increases put the question of deploying biotechnology traits in wheat in a new light.

"This is no longer an issue of grower convenience. It impacts the future of the global wheat industry," he says.

Wheat grower Alan Lee of Berthold, N.D., is already feeling the squeeze. "Some of the new traits on the horizon, such as drought and frost tolerance, will put even more pressure on acres unless wheat is also included in this kind of research," he says.

"Wheat is holding its own in conventional breeding programs, but biotechnology allows new varieties to be developed more rapidly," Lee says.

Wheat acres in the U.S. have steadily declined during the past three decades, and record wheat prices last year weren't enough to stop the bleeding, says Bill Wilson, a North Dakota State University ag economist.

Wilson uses 2008 crop budgets (evaluated in February 2008) for a farm in Reynolds, N.D.—a traditional hard red spring wheat producing region—to prove his point. Return over direct costs for corn was $313 per acre compared with $215 per acre for wheat—a $98 per acre advantage for corn production. In fact, wheat returns for the farm ranked fourth behind corn, barley and soybeans.

Several factors hurt wheat's early advances in biotech. Consumers have a more intimate relationship with wheat than with other commodities. There were fears global customers wouldn't swallow genetically altered products. Half of U.S. wheat is exported, and 30% of global wheat exports come from the U.S.

Wheat is more genetically complex than other commodities. There are multiple wheat classes and lots of variation in growing conditions, which makes it more difficult to identify platforms for trait development. Small acreages also inhibit and raise commercialization costs.

Coppock says his group has met with every segment of the wheat chain during the past two years to determine what biotech tools need to be in the variety toolbox.

"Shake it all out, and drought and other stress tolerances are the most desired traits," he says. "Herbicide tolerance is in the mix, but today there's more interest in traits that lead to higher yields while maintaining quality."

Finding common ground is important in convincing private technology developers to invest in wheat's future. "They face a 10-year, $150 million effort to develop, deregulate and launch a trait in wheat," Coppock says. "Companies want to know that the wheat industry's support is durable and permeates to the grower level."

Lee says it boils down to the simple fact that consumption of all crops is still outstripping production. "We are going to need every tool available. Biotech is one of those tools that needs acceptance throughout the world so it can potentially be used for all crops, including wheat. But we still need to be mindful of the issue of consumer confidence," he says.

Choice will be key to acceptance, Bratter adds. "Our intentions would be to have a segregation system in place and have [genetically modified] tolerances well-defined," she says.
Bratter notes Australia is knocking on the door with drought tolerance. "Wheat isn't going to disappear from the landscape without genetic enhancements," she says. "However, if something isn't done, we run the risk of wheat becoming a specialty crop."

You can e-mail Pam Smith at

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