Monsanto Co. could start field testing genetically modified wheat within one to two years, but remains cautious about future commercialization, according to one of the company’s top wheat technology executives.
Six years after shelving a biotech wheat product in the face of stiff market resistance, Monsanto still sees a need for circumspection, but believes building acceptance and a need for increased food production makes the wheat seed market potentially lucrative over the long term.
Currently there is no biotech wheat on the market because of consumer and food industry opposition, but Monsanto sees attitudes changing.
“I wouldn’t say we’re jumping in with two feet,” said Claire CaJacob, Monsanto’s global wheat technology lead executive, in an interview with Reuters. “But I wouldn’t say we’re tentative. We have traits that make more sense. It’s the right time.”
Several rival seed companies including Syngenta, and BASF, are also working on developing genetically modified wheat but Monsanto is the world’s largest seed company and its work is closely watched worldwide.
Monsanto aims to use genetic modification to develop a higher- yielding, more drought-and stress-tolerant crop. This year’s drought in eastern Europe that decimated the Russian wheat crop only underscores the need for improvements in wheat, said CaJacob.
Monsanto’s wheat research is still in the early “Phase 1” of discovery work, which translates to testing various genes to see what might work. Both U.S. wheat farmers and Australian growers are the early target market.
The company’s work to develp a drought-tolerant corn is helping with the research into wheat, she said, but wheat is a much more complicated plant, and it could be one to two years before the company starts field testing
and a decade before a product is brought to market, according to CaJacob.
“We are in the stage of seeing if we have any genes that work,” said CaJacob. “Until you take it to the field you don’t know.”
Monsanto abandoned biotech wheat in May 2004 amid broad opposition from U.S. wheat buyers and growers. But the company announced it was restarting wheat research last year, paying $45 million for the WestBred LLC seed germplasm company.
And in August, Monsanto announced a collaboration agreement with InterGrain Pty Ltd. in Australia to develop wheat lines with increased yield performance, disease resistance, and drought tolerance.
CaJacob said the company was examining various pricing strategies for its future wheat seed products, including questions about whether farmers would continue to be able to save their seed, a common practice by U.S. wheat farmers.
Saving seed is not allowed for farmers buying Monsanto’s patented corn and soybean seed technology.
Monsanto is also striving to develop a product line of improved wheat varieties, using molecular markers that speed up traditional breeding techniques.
“When you hear Monsanto and wheat it doesn’t necessarily mean biotech,” she said.
Though Monsanto rivals are also developing genetically modified wheat projects, Monsanto is in no rush to be the first to market, Ca- Jacob said.
She said emerging industry support for biotech wheat in the United States, including from the National Association of Wheat Growers, and from buyers of U.S. wheat remain critical to the company’s efforts.
“Monsanto would not have gotten back into wheat without the value chain saying ‘We need the technology,’” said CaJacob. “We continue to work with them and make sure they are the leaders on this.”
“Whenyouhear Monsantoandwheat itdoesn’tnecessarily meanbiotech.”
– claire cajacob, monsanto