Many farmers say they would like to grow genetically engineered wheat to help them feed a hungry world, but it’s not what everyone’s hungry for. And now, with the mysterious appearance of Roundup Ready wheat in a farmer’s field in Oregon a few weeks ago, consumer resistance may grow even stronger.
Most of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified, but GMO wheat has never been approved for farming.
“Concerns about GMOs are particularly strong when it is such a staple crop or something that we eat directly,” said Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety. “(Wheat) is the staff of life. It’s the staple crop. It’s what we make bread and pasta out of.”
From 1998 to 2005, biotech seed giant Monsanto grew test plots of wheat containing a gene that made it resistant to its Roundup herbicide. Field trials were conducted in 16 states including Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado. Although it was declared safe by the Food and Drug Administration, the Roundup Ready wheat didn’t go into production.
Since the discovery in the Oregon field, biotech wheat has not been detected in the food supply. Still, Japan and South Korea have stopped ordering soft white wheat, the variety involved in the Oregon incident, until the U.S. Department of Agriculture figures out what happened.
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.
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 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, he said.
But the reason wheat is not genetically modified like corn has much to do with farmers – who didn’t really want it back in 2005.
About half of U.S. wheat is exported. When Monsanto was testing Roundup Ready wheat, 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.
But a turnaround occurred in 2009 when American, Canadian and Australian wheat groups agreed to commercialize biotech wheat together. Seed companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, and Bayer are each doing research, but Mercer said no GMO wheat is likely to reach farmers - or the market - for another seven to 10 years.
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."
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 percent 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.
This story originally aired as part of Business Beat, a weekly program about business and economics in mid-Missouri.