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Biotech wheat would benefit U.S. farmers

The price for not developing genetically modified wheat varieties means the continued decline of the U.S. wheat industry and loss of millions of dollars of potential income to farmers.

“The wheat industry needs this tool to control disease, increase yields and improve nutrition,” says Forrest Chumley, Kansas State University.

It’s not like no one is looking into biotechnology, a term Chumley prefers over genetically modified, for wheat. “Field testing is under way in Mexico and some work is going on in Australia. Unfortunately, the United States is not involved,” Chumley said during a research and development discussion at the recent North American Grain Congress in San Antonio, Texas.

He said field tests show “promising levels of drought tolerance. We hope to sequence the wheat genome,” he said. “But developing (biotech wheat) requires an international effort for success. We have to have a viable market for the product.”

That market may be slow in coming, he said, but is on its way.

“We are encouraged. U.S. wheat organizations are providing information for consumers about biotech wheat. Consumers fear the new and the unknown.”

Education, he said, is crucial. If consumers get adequate information, acceptance will come more readily. “Markets will come but we are not there yet.”

In the meantime, he points out what U.S. wheat farmers are losing. Genome research attracts a lot of dollars. “About $150 million goes to maize. Cotton, soybeans and potatoes each get about $13 million.”

He said wheat remains a “low value commodity” in the minds of many. “Acreage has been steadily declining since 1980. Wheat has a complex system for molecular genetics and a small research community. We see a lack of pull from the industry and we have to ask who will use the end product.”

The payoff could be significant, however. Chumley points out that wheat yields have been flat compared to corn. “In 1970, corn yield averaged 60 bushels per acre. In 2004 yield had jumped to 150 bushels per acre. Wheat has lost ground to corn and soybeans.”

Continued decline in yield and acreage, he said, threatens the U.S. wheat export market.

Concerns over health and nutrition also weaken domestic consumption.

Allowing those slides to continue may mean fewer scientists coming into the wheat industry. “That represents lost opportunities,” Chumley said.

He said the world is ready for biotechnology. “Biotech crops are widely embraced. In 21 countries farmers plant 8.5 million acres of biotech crops. The largest increase is in Brazil.” India also has increased biotech acreage.

In North America, 73 biotech crops are approved. That includes 56 in the United States, 53 in Canada and three in Mexico.

Economic benefits are significant, Chumley said. “We’ve seen a net return from 1996 to 2004 of $27 billion from biotech crops. None of that went to wheat farmers. Pesticide use was reduced by 172,500 metric tons.” But not for wheat producers.

He said the United States added 4 billion pounds of additional food and fiber because of biotech crops in 2001.

Since 1987, APHIS reports indicate 12,173 field tests for biotech crops. Of that number, 5, 537 were for corn, 45 percent of the total. Wheat trials, at 396, represent only 3.2 percent. The oldest biotech study for wheat began in 1994 in Montana for glyphosate tolerance. “Not much progress has been made,” Chumley said.

Ongoing studies in Kansas, Oklahoma and Minnesota include resistance or tolerance to fungus, virus and herbicides as well as work with protein gluten. “Most work is with herbicide tolerance,” Chumley said.

“Value–added (protein quality, anti-oxidants, gluten strength and cellulose ethanol) traits are important,” he said.

Chumley said his father, a mechanic after serving in World War II, always emphasized the importance of using the right tool for the job at hand.

“Biotechnology is a versatile tool for agricultural production,” he said.

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