Who's Ready For Biotech Wheat?

Jul 1, 2013

Most of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. But not wheat. That’s why it was so surprising when Roundup-resistant wheat was discovered in an Oregon field last month. The finding triggered an outcry from food safety advocates and an ongoing investigation by the government. As Grant Gerlock of Harvest Public Media reports, many farmers say they would like biotechnology in wheat to help feed a hungry world, but it’s not what everyone’s hungry for.


Nebraska farmer Larry Flohr, squeezes out a kernel of unripened wheat.
Credit Grant Gerlock

  Eight years after Monsanto cancelled trials of wheat genetically modified to resist its Roundup herbicide, the unapproved crop mysteriously reappeared. The wheat has not been found 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 Department of Agriculture figures out what happened.

Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, says there’s extra sensitivity toward genetically modified wheat because it goes straight to your plate.

Freese: "It’s the staff of life. 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."

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, Nebraska, in the southern panhandle, has his own concerns. He 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 consumers against it.

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

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

Flohr: "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. The Russian wheat aphid. 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’s a reason wheat is not genetically modified like corn. Farmers said they didn’t want it.

You see, about half of U.S. wheat is exported. Steve Mercer of the trade group, U.S. Wheat Associates, says when Monsanto was testing Roundup Ready wheat a decade ago, it was unclear whether it would be accepted overseas.

Mercer: "We were concerned that the Canadian Wheat board, our arch enemy at the time, would be using that as a competitive advantage against US wheat."

If farmers couldn’t export the wheat, it wasn’t worth growing. Monsanto ended its trials. Then, a turnaround in 2009. American, Canadian and Australian wheat groups all agreed to commercialize biotech wheat together. Mercer says seed companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, and Bayer are each doing research, but nothing’s likely to reach farmers for another 7 to 10 years.

But 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.

Vetter: "That’s growing faster than even organic right now."

Grain Place President Dave Vetter says non-GMO foods are becoming a market all their own.

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

That’s easy for wheat because it’s all GMO-free. But cross-contamination is common for organic corn and soybeans. Every load that comes to Grain Place must be tested. Anything over half a percent GMO, it’s rejected. For some, half a percent is still too much.

Vetter: "I had a customer, that if I couldn’t guarantee absolutely 100% GMO free corn that he wasn’t going to buy corn from me. 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. I’m Grant Gerlock, Harvest Public Media.

Copyright 2013 Harvest Public Media