Progress for biotech wheat?

by Arvin Donley
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Proponents for the development of genetically modified wheat have seen progress on that issue in recent months. In May, organizations representing the wheat industry in three major wheat-producing countries — the United States, Canada and Australia — released a trilateral statement supporting GM wheat research and development and working toward the goal of synchronized commercialization of biotech traits in the wheat crop.

In July, five years after shelving a controversial biotech wheat product, St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.-based Monsanto Co. announced it was jumping back into the wheat business, paying $45 million to acquire WestBred LLC, a specialist in wheat germplasm. Also that month, Bayer CropScience announced it was expanding its seeds and traits business to include wheat and formalized a long-term partnership with CSIRO, Australia’s national research organization and a leading wheat researcher.

In September 2009, organizations representing U.S. wheat growers, millers and bakers released a paper entitled, "The Case for Biotech Wheat," which emphasized that biotechnology has the potential to help reverse the loss of wheat plantings in the U.S. and help ensure adequate supplies to feed the world.

Organizations collaborating on the paper included the National Association of Wheat Growers, U.S. Wheat Associates, the North American Millers’ Association (NAMA), the Independent Bakers Association and the Wheat Foods Council.

LOST ACREAGE

The industry first sought to formally address declining wheat acreage in a 2006 paper entitled, "Addressing the Competitiveness Crisis in Wheat," and at a series of Wheat Summit meetings that followed. The Wheat Summit meetings included representatives from throughout the wheat chain — from farmers and scientists all the way to branded food companies and retailers.

This most recent industry report shows that from the time GM corn (maize) and soybeans were introduced to the market in the early 1990s, wheat plantings around the world has stayed essentially flat and decreased significantly in the U.S. as producers have shifted from wheat to higher yielding and more profitable corn and soybeans.

In 1995-96, U.S. farmers harvested 24,668,000 wheat hectares and produced 59,404,000 tonnes of wheat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 2008-09, the USDA projects 20,414,000 hectares of harvested wheat and 59,428,000 tonnes, a total that is virtually unchanged from 14 years earlier.

Meanwhile, harvested corn area increased from 26,390,000 in 1995-96 to 32,378,000 in 2008-09 and production soared from 187,970,000 tonnes to 329,059,000 tonnes over that period. Harvested soybean area and production increased just as dramatically, going from 24,906,000 hectares harvested in 1995-96 to 31,067,000 in 2008-09 and jumping in production from 59,174,000 to 88,322,000 tonnes.

"Unless the wheat industry can successfully change the equation and restore its competitiveness, wheat is on a path to becoming a minor crop," the study said. "This outcome would be unfortunate for every sector of today’s wheat industry: from input suppliers to producers to consumers. While there are no silver bullets, biotechnology can make a significant contribution to changing this competitiveness equation, positioning wheat as a viable production alternative for producers."

The study pointed out that North Dakota and Kansas, usually the top two producers of wheat in the U.S., have seen wheat acreage decline precipitously in recent years due to better riskreturn tradeoffs in other crops. In fact, Kansas, long known as the "Wheat State," now produces more corn than wheat.

"Even in the drier areas of the western Great Plains, where there has not historically been sufficient rainfall to produce corn, the advent of drought tolerance traits in the first half of the next decade is expected to expand the Corn Belt further west at the expense of wheat acres."

Data compiled by the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) show that wheat net returns are consistently half or less the net returns for corn and soybeans. The divergence between the net returns of these crops for the seven years in which the data were compiled (2002-03 to 2008-09) show that in no year did the net returns for wheat exceed either corn or soybeans. Therefore, the data suggest the disparity in net returns to be a long-term problem rather than a symptom of recent volatility in the markets.

FOOD INDUSTRY CONCERNS

Declining production of wheat is a concern to the milling, baking and food businesses that rely on wheat as a primary ingredient. Smaller supplies of wheat, produced only in areas where more profitable alternatives do not exist, will translate into supply challenges for the food industry.

"Shifting land away from wheat will add risk and costs to the system," Jim Bair, vice-president of the North American Millers’ Association, told World Grain.

The study also noted that smaller production regions leave the U.S. wheat crop more vulnerable to weather or plant disease problems, and to the extent that wheat production is pushed onto marginal hectares, crop failures become more likely.

Many industry organizations are now supporting a goal of the National Association of Wheat Growers to increase national average wheat yields 20% from 2008 to 2018 through work on biotechnology and non-biotechnology efforts.

In a recently released report that may spur debate about the pros and cons of commercializing biotech wheat, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global food production will need to double between now and 2050 to feed a population that is estimated to grow to 9 billion people.

"Producing more wheat with fewer inputs in a sustainable manner will be essential in meeting the needs of our planet’s population," the "Case for Biotech Wheat" study said.

Bair noted that commercializing biotech wheat would not only help the world meet its lofty food production goals, but have a positive effect on the global environment.

"With having to feed all of those additional people, it’s hard to see how we get there sustainably without cutting down rainforests or converting other environmentally fragile lands into production," he said. "I think it makes more sense to grow more wheat in places like Kansas, North Dakota or Illinois than it does to produce it in a place where the land is less sustainable."

CONVINCING CONSUMERS

Ultimately, it is the lack of acceptance from consumers, particularly those outside the U.S., which has made biotech companies skittish and played a major role in preventing the development of biotech wheat.

The report stated that because about one-half of U.S. wheat production is exported to offshore markets, it will be critical to meet the needs of these buyers as biotechnology moves forward.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) has conducted surveys on U.S. consumer opinions on food biotechnology for 10 years, with its most recent survey being completed in 2008. It included the following findings:

Consumers overall confidence in the U.S. food supply remains high at 68%.

Food biotechnology is not a consumer labeling demand, as only 1% of those surveyed said they wanted biotech labeling.

Communicating specific benefits may enhance perception. The majority of consumers (53%) said they would purchase foods from plants produced through biotechnology for specific benefits.

But consumer opinion in non-U.S. markets is more variable. According to the report, some markets in Latin America express little concern as long as food safety and quality considerations are met satisfactorily. Other markets, primarily in Europe and North Asia, register a much higher level of consumer concern.

The Asian Food Information Council conducted a consumer survey and released a report on Dec. 26, 2008, measuring consumer perception in Seoul, South Korea; New Delhi, India; Manila, Philippines; and Tokyo, Japan. The survey found that:

A majority of consumers in China, Taiwan and India expect benefits from biotechnology within the next five years, but much smaller numbers in South Korea and Japan, perennially one of the world’s top wheat importers and the U.S. wheat industry’s biggest customer, hold this view.

Consumers largely accept plant biotechnology if the technology contributes to a more sustainable way of producing foods.

Professor Ian Crute, recently appointed as the first chief scientist for Britain’s new Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, an umbrella body which includes the Home Grown Cereals Authority, told World Grain that it’s his personal opinion (the organizations he represents have not set an official view on the matter) that commercializing GM wheat would be a positive development and that eventually it will happen.

But gaining acceptance in Europe will continue to be a struggle, he said. "The regulatory regime we have in Europe is almost an industry on its own which is almost designed to make it difficult to get things registered," Crute said.

He said Europe is concerned about how the development and commercialization of GM wheat could impact its wheat industry.

"If they are going to promote larger wheat plantings in the U.S. and Australia, Europe has a position in exports which could grow weaker," Crute said. "Their theory is there’s going to be more wheat in the marketplace."

Daren Coppock, chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C., U.S.-based National Association of Wheat Growers, told World Grain that one essential step on the way to commercialization is to establish a reliable segregation system to ensure that its major export customers, such as Japan, receive the product they desire.

"They are a big market and they’re a cash customer that we’ve had a long relationship with," Coppock said of Japan. "That’s certainly not something that we want to upset."

The paper noted that while a tolerance of zero is not achievable in biological systems, wheat supplies that meet commercial criteria as non-biotech will be available to customers and will be incentivized by market mechanisms such as premiums and discounts.

"With commercially achievable tolerances for low-level presence, the grain handling industry will be able to meet customer demands for non-biotech wheat," it said.

Coppock said life science company scientists have told him it will be at least 10 years, assuming the efforts in research and development continue to gain momentum, before the commercialization of GM wheat occurs.

"That will give us a good decade to work on the market acceptance issues," he said. "Things are starting to move in the right direction, and hopefully we’ll be able to sustain them."

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