While numerous farm and environmental groups celebrated Monsanto’s decision to shelve its Roundup Ready spring wheat project, other farmers and organizations are not all that happy with the decision.

In mid-May, Monsanto announced that it was postponing the introduction of Roundup Ready wheat until a time when other wheat biotechnology traits are being introduced. Instead, the company will concentrate research and development investments to accelerate the development of both new and improved traits in corn, cotton and oilseed crops. The Roundup Ready technology means that the crop’s genes had been manipulated to make the crop immune to the effects of glyphosate herbicide.

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready wheat was targeted for Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana where 90 percent of the nation’s hard red spring wheat is grown. It would also be used in western Canada.

Benefits Didn’t Get Sold

While a number of foreign buyers of spring wheat are not willing to buy genetically modified grain, many of the critical issues dealing with grain segregation are being solved. While there are a number of benefits to biotechnology, wheat industry officials say customer wariness and the potential rejection of U.S. grown wheat are of great concern.

Yet food processors such as General Mills believe herbicide-resistant wheat will offer little benefit to consumers. They indicate that there has been considerable opposition to genetically modified foods in Japan and Europe.

In Canada, officials of the Canadian Wheat Board are praising Monsanto’s decision to postpone introduction of Roundup Ready spring wheat. This is because customers purchasing 87 percent of the group’s spring wheat sales last year said they won’t buy genetically modified wheat.

Never Say Never. However, Monsanto will continue to monitor the wheat industry’s desire for crop improvements via breeding and biotechnology. While discontinuing breeding and field research with Roundup Ready wheat, the company will continue to work with regulators around the world to take the appropriate next steps with regard to regulatory submissions.

Monsanto began the technical development of Roundup Ready wheat in 1997. A half dozen years of field testing demonstrated that Roundup Ready wheat performs exceptionally well under the most difficult production environments for spring-planted wheat and offers the potential for 5 to 15 percent higher yields.

Resistance To Biotech

“As a result of our portfolio review and dialogue with wheat industry leaders, we recognize the business opportunities with Roundup Ready spring wheat are less attractive relative to Monsanto’s other commercial priorities,” says Carl Casale, executive vice president of Monsanto. “Acreage planted in the spring wheat market in the U.S. and Canada has declined nearly 25 percent since 1997, and even more in the higher-cost weed control target market for this product.

“This technology adds value for only a segment of spring wheat growers, resulting in a lack of widespread wheat industry alignment, unlike the alignment we see in other crops where biotechnology is broadly applied. These factors underscore the difficulty of bringing new technologies to the wheat market at this time.”

Corn Vs. Wheat. Allan Skogen says one of the reasons for the drop in spring wheat acreage is the biotech benefits offered in corn, soybeans and canola. The Valley City, N.D., farmer recently told AgWeek editors that he spent more dollars last year per acre on seed, fertilizer and chemicals for wheat than for corn. It averaged $40 per acre for chemicals with wheat and only $18 per acre for corn, including the tech fees for seed.

Some growers believe they’ve lost the potential for 50 cents a bushel in future cost savings and yield increases with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready spring wheat postponement. This is offset by only 5 to 10 cents a bushel worth of potential market damage, based on an analysis by North Dakota State University ag economist Won Koo.

Yet other companies are also developing biotech wheat. As an example, Syngenta is working on adding scab resistance traits to wheat and hopes to have varieties ready for market in 7 to 10 years.

Changing Strategies

Monsanto’s wheat research investment in fiscal year 2004 was under $5 million, or less than 1 percent of the company’s $500 million annual research and development budget.

Monsanto officials indicate that shifting resources away from Roundup Ready wheat will allow the company to increase research on stress tolerance and several improved health profile vegetable oil traits. The company’s research will continue to focus on yield improvement, stress tolerance, agronomic pest resistance traits and feed improvement traits.

Products such as Roundup Ready Flex for cotton and an improved soybean oil for food manufacturers are already moving closer to commercialization. Good results in 2003 field trials for drought tolerant corn were expanded to more trials this year.