Monsanto was back in the news last week with its announcement that it is re-entering the wheat-breeding business with the purchase of a Montana-based company that specializes in germplasm.
The objective is to develop genetically modified wheats that have better drought tolerance, improved nitrogen efficiency and ultimately higher yields.
Monsanto’s competitors, Syngenta AG, BASF and Dow AgroSciences are also pouring resources into wheat development some with a focus on transgenic transfers from other species, with others working to manipulate genes already found in wheat. Some companies are focusing on transgenic alterations using DNA from other species and some are manipulating genes already found in the crop.
Don’t get us wrong. Investment in wheat research is a good thing – especially if it leads to solutions for some of the issues plaguing existing varieties, such as a predisposition to fusarium head blight, which is a public health concern as well as a yield crippler. Or, that new strain of stem rust Ug99 that surfaced in Uganda a decade ago and is now on the move.
But we question the basic assumptions that appear to be driving a significant proportion of this new private-sector research investment: the world needs more wheat, or it will starve, and secondly, that world needs transgenic wheat or it will starve.
The recent CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) report Wheat Facts and Futures 2009 notes that world wheat consumption has exceeded supply in seven of the past 10 years and production continues to lag behind population growth.
“If population growth continues at double the growth of wheat production, there will likely be serious difficulties in maintaining a wheat food supply for future generations,” CIMMYT says.
OK, that’s a problem. But is it genetic, agronomic or market related?
As the CIMMYT report highlights, declining soil health and fertility are key reasons why farmers are having to use more fertilizer to get the same yields. That bumps up their costs of production and reduces the crop’s profitability. Increasing the uptake of conservation farming practices is cited as key to stabilizing those yields and turning around those acreage losses – for a fraction of the cost of developing transgenic varieties.
Declining advances in wheat yields can also be attributed to the fact that farmers aren’t growing wheat on their best land, which is increasingly seeded to more lucrative crops such as corn, soybeans or in Canada, canola.
The proposed genetic enhancements are unlikely to increase the crop’s relative profitability compared to the alternative crops already displacing wheat acres. Hybridization, the main means by which corn and canola breeders have used to increase yield, remains stubbornly elusive due to wheat’s genetic complexities.
The GM wheat we’re talking about will be of the greatest benefit in areas of the world where wheat is already one of the few options for farmers.
U. S. yield data also supports the theory that farmers aren’t maximizing the yield potential of existing genetics. With all that talk about Canadian farmers getting access to higher-yielding U. S. wheats, the average U. S. yield for all wheats – most of which is higher-yielding winter wheat – is still around 40 bushels per acre. Manitoba spring wheat delivered an average of 45 bushels per acre last year, while Saskatchewan’s average yield was 36.1 bushels.
If the prices were such that farmers put just 10 per cent of the U. S. corn acres (less than half of what’s going for biofuel) into wheat, acreage would jump 15 per cent to 68.5 million acres. Even at 40 bushels per acre that takes U. S. wheat production to a near record.
So, how will companies recoup their investment in GM wheat? The likely choice of plant breeders will be GURT (Genetic Use Restriction Technology), which anti-GM lobbyists have labelled the Terminator Gene.
The majority of the world’s wheat buyers, at least the ones who can afford to pay, remain cool to the idea of GM wheat and are dead set against the concept of GURTs. These genetic developments may make farmers’ lives a little easier, but they don’t have much appeal to consumers.
So farmers could be left paying to use a technology that produces something customers don’t want. Yet there continues to be this notion out there that if all the world’s major exporters bring in GM wheat together, global consumers will have no choice but to swallow it.
It would seem the fundamental question confounding the world’s wheat supply is not yield – it’s acreage. Increasing the supply with high-priced technology won’t solve that problem.
If the world needs more wheat, as undoubtedly will be the case one day, this technology may be useful. But the first step is a fair price for farmers. [email protected]