Just a few years ago, feuding factions of the wheat industry drew a hard line on the issue of biotechnology. Farmers stood on one side, ready to defend their markets that are intolerant of genetically modified (GM) crops. Corporations stood on the other, insisting their products could only help a struggling industry.
The issue focused in the northern plains where farmers grow spring wheat for domestic use and exports. Their biggest customers, the European Union and Japan, represent more than a third of the $900 million worth of annual wheat exports. And those countries have made it clear that they don't want GM wheat.
Monsanto has been leading the charge for GM wheat, arguing that Roundup Ready seed would benefit wheat farmers as much as it has corn and soybean farmers. Those benefits include more weed control options and improved profitability.
Today, farmers, corporations and others in the wheat industry have reached across that line, shaken hands and agreed to work together to bring bioengineered wheat products into the market only when the entire food chain is willing to accept them.
“The relationship isn't as volatile as the press sometimes has tried to paint it,” says Darrell Hanavan, executive director of the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee and chair of the joint Biotechnology Committee of the National Association of Wheat Growers, U.S. Wheat Associates and the Wheat Export Trade Education Committee. “Everybody understands there are issues we need to overcome prior to the commercialization of biotech wheat.”
Monsanto's Director for Global Industry Affairs Mike Doane agrees. “I've seen a shift in dialogue over the last 12 months,” he says. “There's starting to be a greater recognition of the benefits this technology can provide.”
There's still plenty of controversy. Wheat farmers would like to have the benefits of Roundup Ready wheat, but they aren't willing to sacrifice their export markets to get it. In North Dakota, the Farm Bureau has changed its position of favoring a moratorium to favoring a “cautious approach” to commercialization of GM wheats.
“A lot of the farmers who grow wheat also grow soybeans and corn. So they're familiar with the Roundup Ready technology and its benefits,” Hanavan says. “They're also aware of the market acceptance issue. We've seen what happened when Roundup Ready soybeans and corn were introduced into the market. We want to learn from those experiences.”
As a result, Monsanto and other companies have redirected their efforts at more than just regulatory approval.
“The bald facts are, we're never going to sell a seed of biotech wheat until we know we have demand out there,” Doane says. “We aren't setting any timelines. It's a process that includes six distinct steps that need to be taken before we start selling Roundup Ready wheat.”
Issues of concern
Two of the biggest issues facing the biotech wheat industry are the ability to develop a “closed-loop” identity preservation system to keep GM wheat separate from non-GM varieties, and the acceptance of a tolerance level above 0% in export markets.
“Zero is an awfully small number,” Hanavan says. “We really can't deal with zero tolerance. I hope we can establish an international standard. I'd assume that would be 1% or less.”
The market is getting mixed signals right now. Egypt has said it won't have any problems importing GM wheat from the U.S. when it ultimately is commercialized. Egypt is the world's second biggest wheat importer after Brazil.
But Italy's largest miller, Grandi Molini Italiani (GMI), recently took the opposite stance, saying it doesn't want any part of GM wheat.
“We will not only avoid buying GM wheat but we will probably be forced to completely avoid importing from those countries/regions where it is known that GM wheat is grown,” GMI's Antonio Costato told Reuters.
“As president of GMI, I do not see any reason to expose the company to the risks implied by accidental contamination with GM wheat,” says Costato, whose company has six mills in Italy and uses more than 1.4 million tons of grain annually.
The word back home isn't quite so shrill. In a recent survey of consumer attitudes toward products containing biotech wheat, 40% of the respondents said they would potentially switch products or buy fewer baked goods if they contained GM wheat. The report points out, however, that the percentage is similar to the percentage of consumers who said they would avoid products that contain GM corn, a trend that hasn't occurred. The survey was funded by the American Bakers Association (A.B.A.), the North American Miller's Association and the American Society of Baking.
“The survey indicates that, above all, consumers desire a direct benefit from any biotech wheat product,” says Andre Biane, vice president of research, development and quality at Sara Lee Bakery Group, St. Louis, and chairman of the A.B.A. biotechnology subcommittee. “Second, they want a product that is environmentally safe and may even improve the environment.”
The survey results convince Biane that it will be several years before consumer acceptance of biotech wheat reaches a point that it will become a viable product. “We're still several years away. There's still a lot of resistance overseas that has to be overcome before we release these types of commodity products into the mainstream North American farming industry,” he says.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) remains resolute in its support of biotech wheat. “There are more companies than just Monsanto working on these products. And, they're working on attributes other than Roundup Ready,” says BIO spokesperson Lisa Dry. “Other GM wheats are under development that will reduce gluten content, have higher absorption and meet more of millers' specs.”
GM wheat with better disease control will eventually bring economic benefit to farmers, according to John Bloomer, global head of cereal seeds and traits for Syngenta at Whittlesford, England. “Fusarium-resistant wheat will be the first biotech wheat product for us,” he says. “It's particularly important for the northern U.S., and it will add value for growers and the whole chain.”
It likely will be 2007 before the wheat is available, according to Bloomer. “We're in the late stage of research and early stage of development,” he says. “We've been very pleased with results from our initial field testing.”
Syngenta is equally aware of the consumer issues that GM wheat products face. “We're working closely with the baking industry,” Bloomer says. “We're not going to go out and raise any issues.
“It's really all a matter of hearts (value, trust and our behavior) and minds (sound science),” he says. “If the product doesn't have benefits to all the key stakeholders, including growers, millers, bakers, retailers and consumers, it won't sell.”