Wheat trilateral strategy: more food with less inputs

Published on: 13:03PM Jun 20, 2014

 By Gerrid Gust:  Davidson, Saskatchewan, Canada

I’m a fourth-generation wheat farmer in Saskatchewan—and one of my long-term goals is to make sure the fifth generation on my family farm also has the opportunity to enjoy the full benefits of technology.  We cannot let international trading rules be determined by scientific illiteracy and special interest pleading.
A growing number of people share this objective:  Earlier this month, 16 major groups in Australia, Canada, and the United States called for the commercialization of genetically modified wheat.  That’s up from the nine organizations that put out a similar statement five years ago.
We’re gaining numbers and strength.
Our ranks include some of the most forward-looking groups in the wheat producing and exporting world - from my own Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association to Grain Producers Australia and the U.S. based National Association of Wheat Growers to more broad-based groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation.  It’s not just farmers who are encouraging GM wheat: The Canadian National Millers Association and the North American Millers Association also have signed on.
We seek innovation, investment, and regulations based on sound science. "In addition to protecting the continued availability of wheat foods, wheat enhanced through biotechnology ultimately offers the promise of improved products, more sustainable production, and environmental benefits," says the new statement.
This is an essential strategy for global food security. Wheat currently accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s daily caloric intake. Yet demand for it continues to multiply, as the planet’s population increases and the middle class expands.  
We have to continue to grow more food on less land, using less inputs—something that biotechnology, as a tool, has enabled farmers to do with many crops, such as canola, corn, soybeans and cotton.  Why leave wheat farmers on the sidelines?
I’ve also experienced the advantages as we have grown GM canola on our farm for 18 years.  Biotechnology offers us better weed and disease control, which means we don’t have to devote as much time or resources to cultivation or spraying our fields. It decreases our use of expensive inputs and boosts our yields.  That’s good for farmers, good for consumers and good for the environment.  
I’d like to see the same benefits of biotechnology in wheat. Right now, however, there’s no such thing as GM wheat—at least not outside the test plots of researchers and the daydreams of working farmers like me.
Many critics resist biotechnology, and spend a lot of time and money scaring people.  For the most part, farmers understand the benefits but we recognize there continues to be uncertainty over acceptance in several markets.  Will our customers in Europe and Japan accept GM wheat?   Not today, but I am optimistic these challenges will be overcome once the truth about food safety, environmental benefits and consumer benefits becomes better known.
A lot of progress has been made in the 20 years since GM crops were first approved.  We now have a long and impressive track record with agricultural biotechnology—and mountains of hard evidence in support of the health and safety of GM crops.
Farmers around the world have now planted more than 4 billion acres of GM crops. People have eaten more than 2 trillion meals using ingredients from GM crops.  Although some misinformation and confusion still surrounds biotechnology, understanding and acceptance have grown. The environmental benefits from the reduction in the use of fuel, fertilizer and pesticides are simply too powerful to ignore.  The promise of more nutritious food is also a compelling argument that will eventually help win the day.  
Those are among the reasons why my organization endorsed the trilateral statement in support of GM wheat.  We want to help lay the groundwork for the adoption of this technology.   We don’t want anyone to say they were blindsided when this technology comes to our fields.
It won’t happen overnight. Although scientists already know how to produce GM wheat using the same proven technologies that have enhanced other crops, the technology won’t be adopted until all regulatory approvals are obtained.  The new statement from wheat groups makes this very clear: "Biotech wheat will be subject to rigorous scientific testing as well as extensive government approval processes before it is available anywhere in the world."
In the meantime, farmers and others have some important work to do:  we must informthe public about the value of GM crops and get systems in place that accommodate consumer choice.  If we do our jobs well, consumers, farmers and the planet will eventually reap the benefits of GM wheat—and many of us will wonder why it took so long.
Gerrid Gust and his family raise canola, lentils, flax and cereal grains including durum and soft white wheat on the Canadian prairies.  Gerrid is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).
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