Monsanto’s announcement of increased research into genetically modified wheat has been welcomed by major US wheat industry players, adding fuel to the ongoing debate about the crop’s commercialization.
The agricultural giant announced it would seek to introduce its drought and pest-resistant technologies for wheat when it bought out WestBred last week – a company that specializes in wheat germoplasm, the crop’s genetic material.
Currently there are no varieties of GM wheat commercially available anywhere in the world.
In response to Monsanto’s announcement, two major US wheat organizations – the National Association of Wheat Growers and US Wheat Associates – have issued a joint statement welcoming the expansion of GM wheat research.
It said: "This announcement comes at a time when basic research into agronomic improvements to wheat is critically needed. Over the past months and years, we have repeatedly voiced our support for biotechnology and outlined appropriate conditions for commercialization. We have also pressed trait providers to examine this issue carefully… The research challenges facing wheat are well known, as is the importance of this crop to world food supplies.”
The debate reopens
Monsanto shied away from making substantial investment in GM wheat following strong opposition from consumers and the food industry when it last raised the issue in 2004, seeking to commercialize its Roundup Ready traits for wheat.
However, the debate was effectively reopened in May when a tri-national group of wheat industry representatives signed a statement agreeing to synchronize their efforts to commercialize GM wheat traits. This prompted a counter statement from anti-GM organizations from the same three nations: the US, Canada and Australia.
On one side of the argument, supporters of GM wheat research claim that wheat is losing acreage as farmers look to plant crops with the advantages of biotech traits, such as drought, herbicide and pest resistance, and they cite GM wheat as a potential contributor to solving the world’s hunger problems.
However, other organizations have asserted that improvements to wheat varieties could be made through conventional breeding programs, GM technology has not focused on improved nutrition, and GM wheat varieties could cross contaminate non-GM fields, impairing export opportunities to staunchly anti-GM nations.
GM export issues
Even though Monsanto has gained support from important wheat industry groups in the US, as well as a lack of resistance from much of the American food industry, the export market remains a difficult issue.
There has been significant friction with European Union countries in particular, and Monsanto is currently suing Germany for banning its GM maize.
Monsanto said that it sees the introduction of biotech wheat as a long-term strategy, expecting it hit the market within eight to ten years.