Is There Hope For Biotech Wheat?

Advocates believe lower production costs and higher yields could come from biotech and would reverse the trend of declining wheat acres.

As plantings of genetically modified (GM) crops continue to climb by millions of acres per year, one crop stands out for its absence from the list. Wheat growers, including no-tillers, are still waiting for the benefits of biotechnology, and the wait is likely to be a long one.

“What really hurts is that 4 years ago, we were right on the threshold of getting our first biotech wheat, with the promise of more,” says Allen Skogen, a no-till and minimum-till wheat, corn and soybean farmer in Valley City, N.D., and chairman of a group called Growers for Biotechnology.

Majors Defer GM Wheat

At that time, Skogen recalls, Monsanto was in the final stages of readying Roundup Ready hard red spring wheat for commercialization. Univer- sity research had shown Roundup Ready wheat upped yields by 5 to 15 percent.

At the same time, Syngenta Seeds was in the early stages of field testing a fusarium head blight-resistant wheat strain.

“We had hopes a fusarium-resistance trait might be commercially available by 2007, but the best we can hope for now is probably 2010 or 2011, maybe 2014, even if Syngenta was to accelerate field testing,” Skogen adds.

Fusarium, also called head scab, can cause crippling yield losses and costly price discounts at elevators. Fusarium creates a toxin that makes wheat unfit for human consumption.

North Dakota State University economists pegged the state’s fusarium losses in hard red spring wheat, barley and durum wheat at $162 million in 2005.

Both commercial GM product…

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Ron Ross

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