Monday, March 22, 2010

Biotech Wheat Pipeline

The possibility of biotech wheat continues to be a major topic of discussion in international and local wheat circles. At this point there are no biotech wheats and likely will not be for another 8-10 years.

Why all the interest in biotech wheat in the U.S. and around the world?

“In the U.S. wheat production returns are being eclipsed by biotech corn and soybeans and wheat production continues to decline,” says Oades, US Wheat Associates. Wheat grower leaders are looking for solutions that will help keep wheat viable as a production alternative. Both biotech and conventionally grown wheat can provide solutions.”

Declining Wheat Acres
Over the last 25 years U.S. harvested wheat acres have declined roughly 20%, while harvested soybean acres have increased roughly 30%. For the same time wheat yields have increased about 16%, while corn yields increased around 28%. As a result, soybeans and corn production continue to push westward and northward from traditional mid-west production areas into what was previously “wheat country”. Notably, both corn and soybean gains are being driven in large part by trait advantages made available through biotechnology.

“Biotechnology has risen both in the level of attention and acceptance as a direct result of the 2007 world wheat shortage,” says John Oades. “Research on biotech wheat appears to be underway in all major wheat exporting nations, along with importing countries such as Egypt and largely wheat self sufficient nations such as China and India. The primary interest has to do with feeding people as world population continues to grow.”

As with all breeding work, it will take many years to develop biotech traits to make them available in locally adapted germplasm. The US wheat industry supports conventionally bred and biotech wheats. There is a place for both. The important thing is to find a way to keep them segregated.

Traits of Interests
A lot of media attention has been focused on Roundup Ready crops, where a herbicide can be sprayed on plants that will kill the weeds but not hurt the crop plant. Currently, Roundup ready wheat is not on the drawing board.

The wheat biotech pipeline is really under construction. There is nothing in the pipeline right now. Entities involved are still in the discussion and decision phase and have reached the point where tech providers have decided that this is a technology that makes economic sense for them to pursue.

Discussions are underway about what traits would be the most beneficial. Recently the Joint Biotech Committee representing both US Wheat Associates and National Association of Wheat Growers compiled a list of traits of interest to growers at this point. Among those cited were:

Drought tolerance
Improved yield
Disease tolerance (especially fusarium)
Nitrogen use efficiency (NUE)
Cold/freeze tolerance
Nutritional improvements
Protein quality & quantity
Flavor and color improvements
Herbicide tolerance
Insect resistance

At this point options are open on what will be the first products through the line.
“The availability of varieties with a wide range of traits produced both through conventional and biotech methods means more choice in the market place,” says Mark Darrington, Chairman of the Joint Biotech Committee. “This will allow farmers to select products with traits that best suit their needs and meet buyer’s demands.”
Work on the wheat biotech pipeline continues. As connections are made and the line strengthened, traits helpful to consumers and growers alike will start moving down the line.

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