Farmers ready to grow biotech wheat face consumer scrutiny

Nebraska farmer, Larry Flohr, squeezes out a kernel of unripened wheat. Many area fields are still showing the lingering effects of drought. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)
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June 28, 2013 - 6:30am

Almost all of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. But GMO wheat has never been approved for farming. Many farmers would like engineered wheat to help them feed a hungry world, but it’s not what everyone’s hungry for.


From 1998 to 2005, Monsanto grew test plots of wheat containing a gene that made it resistant to Roundup herbicide.  Field trials were conducted in 16 states including Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado. Eight years after Monsanto ended trials of Roundup Ready wheat, it mysteriously reappeared in a farmer’s field in Oregon.

Containers of the same strain of unapproved wheat were stored at a government facility in Fort Collins, Colo. years after field trials ended. Making sure all of those seeds are accounted for is part of the USDA's investigation into the incident.

It’s not the first time a genetic trait has escaped regulatory controls. Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, said the first major biotech leak was StarLink corn in 2000. The corn had only been approved for animal feed.

“Well, it got into the food supply, very widely,” Freese said. “Caused hundreds of millions of dollars in losses to U.S. farmers.”

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready wheat didn’t go into production, but was declared safe by the Food and Drug Administration. But Freese believes there’s extra sensitivity toward genetically modified wheat because it goes straight to your plate.

“It’s the staff of life,” Freese said. “It’s the staple crop. It’s what we make bread and pasta out of. And concerns about GMOs are particularly strong when it is such a staple crop or something that we eat directly.”

Biotech wheat has not been detected in the food supply, but both Japan and South Korea are taking precautions. They’ve stopped ordering soft white wheat, the variety involved in the Oregon incident, until the U.S. Department of Agriculture figures out what happened.

Classes of wheat:

  • Hard red wheat is grown in the Great Plains and milled for all-purpose flour used in bread.
  • Soft red wheat is commonly raised along the Mississippi River and used in cookies and crackers
  • Soft white wheat is raised in the northwestern U.S. and mostly exported for noodles and cakes.
  • Durum wheat is grown in the northern Plains for pasta

 


Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media

Larry Flohr farms wheat in western Nebraska and is active with local and national wheat groups. He thinks biotechnology could help reverse a trend of wheat growing areas switching to corn.

The Center for Food Safety along with farmers in Washington, Idaho, and Kansas are suing Monsanto. Farmers of soft white wheat are concerned about the market reaction. Monsanto wasn’t available for this story but has called the complaints premature.

Good idea, bad timing

Larry Flohr, who farms near Chappell in the Nebraska Panhandle, has his own concerns. Flohr grows hard red wheat, so he hasn’t been threatened by the finding in Oregon. But Flohr would like to grow biotech wheat someday and worries the Oregon case will bias people against it.

“We’re supposed to have a huge population that we need to feed by 2050,” Flohr said. “So wheat needs to advance in its yield capabilities.”

Stephen Baenziger, a wheat researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said lagging yields leave wheat in danger of becoming an “orphan crop.”

Corn yields jumped after genetically engineered varieties arrived in the late 1990s. Prices rose as well. By last year, farmers had added 17 million acres of corn.

Meanwhile wheat lost 15 million acres, much of that in traditional wheat states like Kansas and North Dakota.

Baenziger said the difference is research. In a census of crop breeders, Baenziger said there were 900 researchers working on corn and only 120 working on wheat. “You expect corn improvement should be higher,” Baenziger said.

Sitting by the work bench in his machine shed, wheat farmer Larry Flohr imagined what biotechnology could add to his toolbox when it comes to battling wheat’s many pests.

“We’ve got stripe rust and we’ve got tan spot and we’ve got wheat streak mosaic and we’ve got the wheat curl mite,” Flohr said. “Now we’ve got a new thing we’re really concerned about. It’s called sawfly.”

Perhaps a gene could be altered to make wheat resistant to sawfly the way engineered corn is resistant to rootworm or corn borer. But there is a reason wheat is not genetically modified like corn.

Farmers said they didn’t want it.

About half of U.S. wheat is exported. When Monsanto was testing Roundup Ready wheat a decade ago, it was unclear whether the crop would be accepted overseas.

“We were concerned that the Canadian Wheat board, our arch enemy at the time, would be using that as a competitive advantage against U.S. wheat,” said Steve Mercer of the trade group, U.S. Wheat Associates.

If farmers couldn’t export the wheat, it wasn’t worth growing. Monsanto ended its trials.

Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media

A test strip in a slurry of soybeans and water can detect as little as one engineered soybean out of 1000. Grain Place Foods’ limit is .5 percent GMO, qualifying the company for non-GMO certification.


Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media

David Vetter of Grain Place Foods stands above a refrigerated warehouse near Marquette, Neb.

Then, a turnaround occurred in 2009. American, Canadian and Australian wheat groups all agreed to commercialize biotech wheat together. Seed companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, and Bayer are each doing research, but Mercer said no GMO wheat is likely to reach farmers for another 7 to 10 years.

Blurred boundaries

As the Oregon wheat case shows, biotech traits are hard to confine to one field.

That keeps them busy at Grain Place Foods near Marquette in central Nebraska. The grain processor makes ingredients for everything from pet food to granola. It’s all organic and certified non-GMO.

Grain Place president Dave Vetter said non-GMO foods are becoming a market all their own and growing faster than organic. Many states are considering GMO labeling laws. Some grocery and restaurant chains are voluntarily labeling foods and avoiding GMOs where they can.

“Our customers want to know,” Vetter said. “And that’s one of the reasons that a lot of our customers are buying, because they want to stay away from the GMOs."

It’s easy to know with wheat. For now, it is all GMO-free. But cross-contamination is common for organic corn and soybeans. Every load that comes to Grain Place is tested. If it contains more than .5 percent GMO, it’s rejected. But even .5 percent is still too much for some.

“I had a customer (who said) that if I couldn’t guarantee absolutely 100% GMO free corn that he wasn’t going to buy corn from me,” Vetter said. “And I said I couldn’t do it and he quit. And he was my largest customer at the time.”

The issue for GMO wheat, like corn and soybeans, ultimately comes down to tolerance. No matter how much farmers may want biotech wheat, they’ll still have to convince consumers at home and abroad that’s the wheat they want.

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