(Beyond Pesticides, May 11, 2011) In what seems like a quest to control much of the world’s food supply, industry giant Monsanto is renewing its efforts to develop genetically modified wheat. Over the past two years, the agricultural biotechnology giant has renewed its interest in wheat, committing more resources to creating new traits and seed varieties. Genetically modified (GM) varieties of soy, corn and alfalfa have already been developed. Recent efforts by the company to have GM crops deregulated by the U.S. government -so that they can be widely grown without restriction- have been successful.
In the past two years, Monsanto has renewed its efforts into research for GM wheat. The company has built a ‘seed chipper” for wheat -a proprietary and prohibitively expensive machine that speeds the process of identifying beneficial crop traits. In 2009, the company paid $45 million to buy WestBred, a Montana-based wheat seed company. Monsanto says its efforts will focus on biotechnology and traditional breeding to achieve a drought-tolerant trait and increased yield.
Genetic research and modification has been slower for wheat compared to soy and corn because of the grain’s genetic complexity and lower potential monetary returns to commercial seed companies, which discourage investment in research. In the corn sector, where hybrids are used, farmers generally buy seed from dealers every year. However, many wheat farmers, particularly in the Plains states, use saved seed instead of buying from dealers every year. In addition, U.S. food processors have been wary of consumer reaction to products containing genetically modified wheat, so no GM wheat is currently grown in the United States.
In past years, Monsanto had been working to commercialize a genetically modified wheat, but in 2004, facing industry rejection, the company pulled back. A consortium of groups, including Beyond Pesticides, argued there was widespread foreign opposition to buying biotech wheat as well as various environmental concerns, and demanded that the USDA withhold approval of Monsanto’s GM wheat variety until the government assesses the complete environmental and economic impacts of the product. A 2003 study by the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) shows that introduction of GM wheat will adversely affect the U.S. wheat industry. The study predicts that commercialization of GM wheat would result in a loss of 30 to 50% of U.S. export markets. In 2009, farmers, consumers and civil society organizations in Australia, Canada and the U.S. released a joint statement confirming their collective commitment to stop commercialization of GM wheat. Half of the country’s wheat is exported, and some of those export markets adopted a zero-tolerance stance on the presence of genetically modified grain, meaning even one genetically modified seed could prompt a wholesale rejection of a shipment.
Last month, USDA issued a proposal that would allow industry groups seeking deregulation of GM products to submit their own environmental evaluations as part of the deregulation process. This follows several decisions to deregulate GM alfalfa and sugar beets, despite contamination risks it poses to both organic and conventional farmers. In March 2011, in an effort to protect them from patent infringement in the event of drift contamination by Monsanto’s GM seed, 60 family farmers, seed businesses and organic agricultural organizations preemptively filed suit against the agribusiness giant. The case, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, et al. v. Monsanto, was filed in federal district court in Manhattan on behalf of Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT).
Wheat is grown on more acres globally than any other crop and provides roughly 20 percent of the world’s calories, according to the United Nations. But, American farmers have stopped planting it in recent years. From the 1980s to today, wheat acreage has dropped about 30 percent, from 85 million acres to 60 million. The drop, growers say, is largely because research in wheat has lagged, while innovation in soy and corn has exploded. In February, USDA launched a five-year $25 million grant to perform wheat research, looking at everything from disease to yield.
GM wheat, like other GM crops, can cause serious environmental damage, including the development of resistant weeds, contamination of non-GM crops and organic farms and the unknown impacts of human health. For more information on genetically modified crops and recent federal and legal development visit the Genetic Engineering webpage.
Source: St. Louis Today