Monsanto Going Back Into Genetically Modified Wheat

“I think it would be fantastic (if the U. S. introduced GM wheat alone) because then the Canadian Wheat Board could go around the world as a single seller of Canadian wheat and have one more selling advantage.”

– DARRIN QUALMAN

Monsanto is getting back into producing genetically modified (GM) wheat, but for now only in the United States where the wheat industry supports the move.

Monsanto Canada spokesperson Trish Jordan said it will take an estimated eight to 10 years to develop a new GM wheat. It’s still undecided whether the company would pursue commercialization if other major exporters haven’t yet introduced the technology.

Monsanto shelved its controversial GM Roundup Ready wheat in 2004 due to the lack of market acceptance.

SYNCHRONIZED

Presumably that’s what prompted pro-GM farm groups in the U. S., Canada and Australia to sign a joint statement in May agreeing to “work toward the goal of synchronized commercialization of biotech traits in our wheat crops.”

Last week Monsanto purchased Montana-based wheat-breeding company, WestBred, for US$45 million. Along with Monsanto, rival seed technology companies such as Syngenta AG, BASF and Dow AgroSciences, a unit of Dow Chemical Co., are pouring resources into wheat development.

Some companies are focusing on transgenic alterations using DNA from other species and some are manipulating genes already found in wheat.

Currently there is no biotech wheat grown on a commercial scale anywhere in the world.

Monsanto will use WestBred’s germplasm as the foundation for its GM wheats, Carl Casale, Monsanto’s executive vice-president of global strategy and operations told reporters during a telephone news conference July 14.

“If we saw similar alignments (of support) in other countries we would be more than willing to bring (GM wheat) technology forward in those countries as well,” Casale said when asked about developing GM wheat for Canada.

U. S. FOCUS

But he said the company is focusing for now in the U. S.

The Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association (WCWGA), one of the farm groups that signed the statement supporting GM wheat, is encouraged by Monsanto’s decision, said president Kevin Bender, who farms at Bentley, Alta.

“Cereal research in general has lagged behind a lot of the other crops,” he said. “We can see some potential for improvement in the years to come.”

Bender said he expects Canadian farmers will want GM wheat when they see the advantages to the U. S.

The U. S. going it alone on GM wheat would help Canada, according to Darrin Qualman, director of research for the National Farmers Union.

“I think it would be fantastic, because then the Canadian Wheat Board could go around the world as a single seller of Canadian wheat and have one more selling advantage,” he said. “Not only would our wheat be the highest quality most consistent, there would be no GM wheat in it.”

CUSTOMERS

When the Canadian Wheat Board surveyed its customers this spring 52 per cent said they would not buy GM wheat or barley, said CWB spokeswoman Heather Frayne.

However, the CWB welcomes Monsanto’s investment in wheat, Frayne said.

A Wheat Product Advisory Council made up of representatives from the U. S. wheat industry will guide Monsanto on the introduction of GM wheat.

Private research companies have not invested in wheat partly because it’s hard to earn a return. But Casale said farmers’ attitudes are changing.

“The industry clearly understands it needs innovation in order to be successful

In seven of the last 10 years world wheat consumption has exceeded supply.

and they have come to understand there won’t be innovation unless there is reward (for innovators),” he said.

Monsanto hasn’t decided how it will get paid for its GM wheat, but since it will cost $100 million to develop commercialization won’t occur unless it’s confident of an adequate return, Casale said.

Monsanto isn’t starting with its shelved Roundup Ready wheat, because it’s a spring wheat and plantings of that class have declined in the U. S., he said.

Monsanto will focus on developing drought tolerance, increased nitrogen efficiency and higher yields – the main constraints facing farmers in areas where farmers have few options but wheat.

Monsanto has already inserted those traits in corn and is confident they can be transferred to wheat, Casale said.

U. S. wheat acreage dropped 17 per cent during the last 15 years as corn and soybean plantings increased. According to Casale, farmers have switched to corn and soybeans because they are more profitable. They earn more, he said, because private firms have invested to improve them.

Qualman said since farmers ultimately pay Monsanto for its research, plus a return on investment, farmers should collectively invest in research and reap the rewards themselves.

In seven of the last 10 years world wheat consumption has exceeded supply. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) says the demand for wheat will continue.

The world’s population grew 1.5 per cent between 1993 and 2000, while wheat production from 1985 to 1995 grew 0.9 per cent.

“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 in Wheat Facts and Futures 2009. [email protected]

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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