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Next Generation Farming

Biotech Wheat's Blurry Future

Farmers are ready for biotech wheat, but is the industry?

With wheat prices surging again, interest in wheat breeding is kicking into high gear with huge changes sweeping the industry.

Just in the last couple of years, Monsanto bought Westbred and partnered with Kansas State University, while LimaGrain opened operations in Ft. Collins and acquired a number of other smaller breeding programs throughout the U.S. Bayer CropScience signed a collaboration with the University of Nebraska for wheat breeding, and Syngenta partnered with CIMMYT (the Spanish acronym for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) for wheat development.

These changes have all come about by invitation from wheat growers. In a 2009 survey by the National Association of Wheat Growers, a clear majority of wheat farmers – 76% – said they wanted more investment in wheat research and access to biotechnology.

The conundrum for land grant universities, though, is lack of technology and funds. Releasing a new biotech trait such as drought tolerance would require $20-40 million. With research funding on the wane, the prospect of universities providing farmers with advanced varieties has dwindled. Partnering with private wheat breeders, therefore, is the only solution. By sharing their germplasm with private breeders, they in turn have access to the expensive, more efficient breeding technologies.

These partnerships ultimately will hasten the arrival of biotech wheat. At the 2011 Kansas Seed & Crops Conference in Wichita this week, presenters for Syngenta, Monsanto, LimaGrain, BASF and K-State agreed a new biotech variety would arrive sometime within the next 10 years.

However, one nightmare remains fresh on the wheat industry's mind: white wheat.

A Logistical Nightmare?

In 1998, K-State released two varieties of hard white wheat to the public with the hopes of turning Kansas entirely over to white wheat production. But because white wheat required segregation from the more common hard red wheat at elevators, few facilities were willing to accept it. Often times, farmers had nowhere to take their white wheat. The dream of turning Kansas into a white wheat state soon crumbled and today only a handful of acres are planted to hard white.

Farmers and wheat breeders fear the same could happen to biotech wheat. If a new biotech variety required special handling, elevators might reject it the way they did white wheat.

Making logistical matters worse, how can one tell the difference between biotech and non-biotech if they look identical? An acceptable level of cross-contamination would be required for millers and bakers.

And if the current elevator system does not pan out, then on-farm storage would be the only other viable solution to maintain the integrity of identity preservation. That would require a significant investment from farmers to build their own storage.

While there is a lot of optimism of what farmers could accomplish with improved wheat varieties in the future, the logistics of pulling together the entire food chain could prove to be monumental. As the saying goes, be careful what you ask for, because you may get it.   

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