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A Boost For Wheat Research

It’s nice to see headlines about the need for more investment into wheat research these days, even if some of the stories swirling around that topic are a mite confused.

Last week started with news reports in mainstream dailies across Canada citing a leaked memo from the National Research Council and reporting that genetically modified wheat was to become a top research priority.

We’ll probably never know whether the leaked document actually concluded GM wheat is the answer – and the NRC backpeddled – or whether the reporter combined references to technology and genetic advancement to conclude transgenics. The distinction between a broad range of biotechnology tools such as marker-assisted selection, and transgenic crops which have been augmented by foreign genes, is often not well understood.

At any rate, the NRC hastily issued a statement saying that GM wheat is specifically NOT part of its plan to collaborate with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre on wheat genome research.

The NRC’s role in all this appears to be a commitment to work that will help decipher wheat’s rather complicated genetic code, paving the way for further genetic improvement.

About the same time as all this was unfolding in the national media, the Canada Grains Council meeting in Winnipeg was hearing from Vince Peterson, vice-president of overseas operations for U.S. Wheat Associates, who said GM wheat is necessary and inevitable.

Peterson cited declining wheat acreage as a key reason suggesting lower yields were why wheat is losing ground to crops like corn and soybeans.

“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.”

However, what he didn’t say was that even though wheat acreage has dropped, production hasn’t.

An analysis of world wheat market and trends published by Daniel O’Brien of Kansas State University last month shows that global world harvested wheat acreage has declined by just over a million acres a year since 1987. Yet world production over that same period has increased by an average of 5.19 million tonnes annually, which is slightly below annual average world increases in demand of 5.27 million tonnes.

We can understand why those concerned with food supply would want to see more production of a key food commodity as the world’s population continues to grow.

And we can see why private-sector companies would have an interest in commercializing traits that can capture returns from that increased production.

But a Prairie farmer’s perspective, it would seem the problem with wheat is price and profitability, not higher yields or more acres. Historical trends make it pretty clear that the markets are quick to respond with lower prices whenever wheat supplies rise even modestly above projected demand. Farmers rose to the challenge of wheat shortages in 2007-08 only to be walloped by a 30 per cent drop in price because of “surplus” supplies.

Meanwhile, the demand for corn has risen exponentially due to a politically manufactured market for ethanol. Likewise for oilseeds such as canola and soybeans, as world demand for vegetable oils expands in line with the increased wealth of importing countries. The increase in wheat demand has been due more to normal population growth. Increased yields won’t create extra demand, or make the crop more profitable for farmers in comparison to other options.

That said, genetic improvements that reduce the need for inputs such as fertilizer or fungicides, or which improve the crop’s resilience to environmental stresses could be of benefit. But these improvements are unlikely to be the result of a single gene transfer and their benefits to the farmer will come as a result of lowering the cost of production.

Specific traits for the much-touted drought tolerance will be of limited value in the absence of technology that can accurately forecast a drought. The lineups for such seed, which is bound to cost substantially more and be limited to single use, wouldn’t be very long this spring, for example.

As for disease resistance, our past experience with diseases such as rust, have shown pathogens can quickly adapt to overwhelm the genetic protection offered by transferring in a single gene.

In summary, we applaud the NRC’s increased commitment to genetically improving wheat. Biotechnology has a role in speeding that process. But marketing issues aside, the suggestion that genetically modified varieties are the solution to improving this crop’s profitability vastly oversimplifies the task at hand. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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