Five years to the month after Monsanto shelved its controversial Roundup Ready genetically modified (GM) wheat, farm groups in Canada, Australia and the United States are pushing for the “synchronized introduction” of biotech wheat.
The Grain Growers of Canada, Wes tern Canadian Wheat Growers Association (WCWGA) and Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission are leading the charge in Canada.
In the U. S. it’s the National Association of Wheat Growers and U. S. Wheat Associates, with the backing of the North American Millers’ Association.
Australian support comes from the Grains Council of Australia, Grain Growers Association and Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia.
The coalition says GM wheat will improve yields while giving consumers improved quality and food security.
“Wheat acreage in Canada is in danger of declining even more unless we see innovation in plant breeding,” Grain Growers of Canada president Doug Robertson said in a news release.
“As farmers we will switch acres into those crops which have the best return. In recent years, we have seen wheat yields stagnate in comparison to canola, corn and soybeans.”
In 2004 commercializing Roundup Ready wheat was opposed by the Canadian Wheat Board and a wide range of farm groups, with the exception of the WCWGA, because customers who bought 87 per cent of Canada’s wheat wanted it GM free.
In a 2003 report, then University of Manitoba weed scientist Rene Van Acker said controlling Roundup Ready wheat volunteers would cost between $6 and $16 an acre.
A 2002 report from University of Saskatchewan agricultural economists Richard Gray and Hartley Furtan said the introduction of GM ahead of market acceptance would cut Canadian wheat prices 20 cents a bushel.
Opposition to GM wheat has softened, but most customers still don’t want it, CWB spokeswoman Maureen Fitzhenry said.
“Our position is not in opposition to the introduction of GM,” she said. “We think it might be acceptable in the future, but it has to be in a way that is not going to impact negatively on farmers’ incomes so conditions have to be met. There has to be widespread market acceptance.”
The CWB also wants tolerance levels set for GM wheat in non-GM shipments, the ability to detect and segregate GM wheat and a positive cost benefit through the supply chain, especially for farmers.
The Canadian National Millers Association (CNMA) says it’s pleased the coalition advocates a “synchronized introduction.”
“If genetically engineered wheat is to succeed in Canada and global markets, the benefits must be substantial for the entire value chain,” said CNMA president Gordon Harrison. “This means that agronomic gains should be accompanied by benefits that accrue beyond the farm gate.”
The National Farmers Union opposes the introduction of GM wheat because of the lack of market acceptance.
“They’re talking as if biotechnology is some kind of magic bullet that is suddenly going to solve the hunger problems in the world,” NFU executive director Terry Pugh said. “That’s a fallacy that has been proven wrong over and over again.”
World hunger has more to do with poverty and politics than it does with production, he said.
The debate over whether genetic modification boosts yields or not continues to rage. There’s general agreement that hybridization is largely responsible for the increases in canola yields in recent years.
Corn, another hybridized crop, has seen an even more dramatic increase in yields lately. But Ted Crosbie, Monsanto’s vice-president of global plant breeding, told reporters March 27 wheat yields lag corn’s mainly for two reasons: genetic differences, complicated by end-use and investment.
“If you think about this, we’re spending over a million dollars a day on corn improvement globally, just Monsanto,” he said. “Our competitors are doing similar things, so you could easily compute the commercial seed industry is spending more than a billion dollars a year on corn improvements.”
Wheat is not hybridized and farmers routinely save their own seed to grow. That makes it difficult for private companies to recoup their research investment.
Then there are the genetic differences between corn and wheat, Crosbie said. Corn is a diploid and wheat is a hexaploid. That means wheat has three genomes to wheat’s one.
“Corn is a pretty simple crop to improve genetically.”
North Dakota State University agricultural economist Bill Wilson says wheat yields aren’t likely to catch corn or soybeans because wheat doesn’t get enough research funding in the U. S or Canada.
“I don’t think we have the mechanisms in place to spend that much money,” he told the Canada Grains Council’s annual meeting in Winnipeg last month.
The upside, Wilson said in an interview, is that as wheat production declines, prices will increase to attract production. [email protected]