Do you want biotech wheat?
Two weeks ago I wrote about my hopes for the next phase of biotech traits for agriculture. Since then, grower and processor organizations representing Canada, U.S. and Australia have come forward to indicate they are actively advocating for genetically modified wheat.
Earlier efforts to bring GM wheat with herbicide tolerance to the marketplace failed miserably. Importing nations, end users and consumers put a quick stop to this initiative a few years ago and the company behind herbicide tolerant wheat put the project on the shelf.
If I think about it, these early public relations efforts by the Canadian, Australian and U.S. wheat organizations show that primary agriculture is slowly learning that the marketplace needs to be made aware of the benefits of biotechnology before the new seed products arrive in our fields. I think GM wheat will still be a tough sell, but there are a couple of valid points that should help.
First, wheat productivity is falling behind other crops. If you were in charge of a major seed and genetics company, you would probably not invest a lot of resources in developing new wheat varieties because the returns just aren’t there. Where I farm in Ontario, we have benefited immensely from a competitive environment whereby 3 seed companies have pushed each other to continually deliver the goods in terms of new wheat genetics that deliver yield and disease protection – but they are all indicating that there is no money in this sector and are not likely to continue or increase wheat research. Even if you hit a home run as a breeder and develop a super variety, you’ll sell some seed in the first couple of years that will be kept over and multiplied on farm. I do some of this myself, a practice that does not exist for hybrid corn and GM soybeans.
Having said this, for GM wheat to make sense for me, there will need to be significant value in the trait. If I’m going to be paying higher prices for wheat seed every year, there must be more revenue potential from growing the crop. I’m not convinced that herbicide tolerance is where we need to go here. Weed control in wheat is not as big a deal as it is with corn, soybeans or canola. The challenges I think we need to address are yield, disease control, drought tolerance, and nutritional or processing properties that will add value for the end user.
A perceived food shortage last summer led to some big price spikes for crop prices. But for wheat, the supply issue was real. This crop is a major planet feeder and deserves more attention from researchers and genetics companies, whether the advancements are GM or conventional.
What do you think? Will the public accept GM wheat? What traits should the genetic companies deliver? Would you grow GM wheat?
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