GM Wheat Is Coming — Eventually

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The need to make more money growing wheat will see genetically modified varieties commercialized in seven to 10 years, according to a leading American wheat organization.

“I think this is a matter of when we have GM wheat products in the market, and not so much an if at this point,” Vince Peterson, U.S. Wheat Associates’ vice-president of overseas operations told the Canada Grains Council’s annual meeting in Winnipeg April 4.

“We’re really obliged to look at it and be honest with the world market about what’s inevitably going to be coming down the road.”

U.S. Wheat Associates is a government- and producer-funded wheat export promotion agency. It wants all exporters to agree on simultaneous introduction of GM wheat so that none take advantage by offering non-GM.

Peterson said consumer attitudes are changing toward the controversial technology.

“There’s still a huge amount of work to be done (in terms of market acceptance,” he said. “I think everyone wants this done correctly unlike when Monsanto came in the last time (in 2004) with their Roundup Ready wheat and the whole world went up in arms. I think this time around it will be done judiciously and at a slow pace.”

Biotech companies argue GM wheat is needed to feed a world that already has one billion chronically undernourished people and will see its population reach nine billion by 2050.

The first GM wheat won’t be Monsanto’s Roundup Ready, but will likely have a trait such as drought tolerance, Peterson said.

World wheat plantings have fallen by 30 per cent during the last 30 years while soybean and corn acres increased by 36 and 20 per cent respectively, Peterson said.

“If we look at Canada and the U.S. together, we have lost about nine million hectares of wheat land area,” Peterson said. “That’s about 25 million tonnes of potential exportable wheat surplus that’s not there on the world market.”

Yield has been the driver of this scenario, with corn yields up fourfold compared to wheat during the last 50 years, he said.

“Wheat is a very poor third cousin to the other two in terms of profitability on any particular farm,” Peterson said.

Corn and soybean acres are also increasing because of government policies, Peterson said. In 1995, the U.S. Farm Bill detached subsidy payments from crop production, giving farmers more planting flexibility. And government subsidies for biofuel have driven up the demand for corn and soybeans.

More production needed

“There’s not enough wheat production right now in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Western Europe and probably Russia and Ukraine to handle that (future) demand,” said Peterson, adding that developing nations must increase production too.

That’s why Syngenta, the world’s largest wheat-breeding company, is working with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), said Judy Shaw, Syngenta Crop Protection Canada’s government affairs director. Syngenta is developing GM wheat that’s tolerant to fusarium head blight.

In 2009 Monsanto announced it was getting back into GM wheat research, partnering with universities, said Monsanto Canada spokeswoman Trish Jordan.

Similar work is not happening in Canada, yet.

“We’re happy to talk to anybody who’s interested in this, but we’re not driving anything out of Monsanto Canada,” she said.

Customers don’t want it

The Canadian Wheat Board was part of the coalition that opposed Monsanto’s GM wheat in 2004 because most of its customers didn’t want it.

“From our point of view we’re certainly not against the development of GM products or any better wheats, but the reality is we have to be able to sell that successfully into a marketplace,” said CWB president and CEO Ian White.

“There are other issues from the logistical side on how we’re going to cope with it from the point of segregation. There’s a lot to discuss in GM (wheat) before we actually get there.”

Farmers’ views vary. The Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association sees GM wheat as key to boosting yields and profits. The National Farmers Union doesn’t.

“There’s nothing to indicate consumers are going to accept GM wheat,” NFU president Terry Boehm said. “It’s a dead-end path.”

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