Morton Sosland: Engineering a New Era

by Morton Sosland
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So many good and sound reasons may be cited for bakers, indeed for all of grain-based foods, to support enthusiastically genetic modification of wheat that it is increasingly difficult to understand how a single imaginary negative stands in the way of this happening. That negative takes the form of concerns that consumers may refuse to eat bread or other foods baked from flour milled from wheat that has been modified by the application of biotechnology. Even though this possibility has never been tested in any substantive way by real-time production and marketing, and even though this objection is based on conjecture stirred by the worst sort of food safety and environmental scare mongering, it has enough power to prompt hesitancy and even a strong “no” from people who should know better. It is high time that this implausible situation ends and that development of new and improved wheat is encouraged to proceed with all possible haste.

Without demeaning the strength of any one of the excellent reasons that this should happen, it seems eminently sensible to assign priority to maintaining the competitiveness of wheat as a crop being produced in America. The way wheat has lost considerable acreage to crops with the advantage of having been genetically modified many years ago sounds an alarm siren that ought to ring loudly in the ears of all those reliant on this food grain. Primarily as the result of the pronounced upward trend in the yields of biotech-improved corn, soybeans and cotton, those crops have not only gained acreage share in regions where they historically competed for the attention of growers but also encroached significantly into areas where wheat’s dominance was once unquestioned. Improvements in the genetics of these crops have made them suited for growing in regions of higher altitudes and less rainfall that once were the exclusive province of wheat. Seeing wheat replaced as the major crop in Great Plains states such as Kansas delivers a terrifying message to those wanting to preserve and even increase production of this basic food grain.

At a time when yield of wheat has barely budged for several decades while per-acre outturns of corn, soybeans and cotton have consistently risen, the advantages of biotechnology and especially genetic modification are strikingly clear. Why this is so rests firmly on how these crops have gained from the application of scientific advances that are just beginning to be tried on wheat. Even though wheat has been modified for hundreds, indeed thousands, of years by researchers seeking yield and quality gains, it is only recently that biotechnology has been embraced in a highly tentative manner. This means that it is some time before biotech-modified wheat will be offered to farmers.

The consequences of this lag are obvious in yield trends and acreage. It will be a long time before wheat catches up with competitive crops. For 2010, varieties of corn modified by biotechnology accounted for 86% of the national acreage and in soybeans and cotton for 93% each. Approaching 100% does not mean a ceiling has been reached since biotechnologists at work in agriculture have proven their continuing success in boosting yields.

Knowing that biotechnologists have been able to produce varieties of corn and soybeans suited for specific end uses, such as healthier oils and grains designed for end uses such as milling or fuel processing, whets the hopes of millers and bakers for advances in wheat that will realize similar outcomes. Once the technical difficulties of making changes in the genetics of wheat are realized, it becomes understandable why research is first focused on crop improvements, both in yields as well as in lowering production costs. The latter will likely be based on a two-pronged effort that combines economy in use of chemical herbicides as well as significant gains in protecting the environment.

It is only after the path to significant yield gains has been found that scientists working with wheat will turn to the task of improving milling as well as for making gains in nutritional contributions and baking quality. Considering the impressive advances made in biotechnology in recent years, it is far from fantasy to imagine how this science will add value to this crop at every level. Instead of the fears and scorn that opponents of modified crops find delight in shouting, it is delightful to dream of the benefits for humankind promised by the application of this technology.

Yet that one obstacle based on imagined fear must be overcome, even with the great promise of modified wheat. This requires extensive planning along with education of the public in a highly focused effort designed to show that biotechnology and genetic modification have caused no problems in the health or well-being of people and have been, if anything, a positive for ensuring the sustainability of land. The objections and barriers standing in wheat’s way are largely due to the admittedly clumsy way in which these changes were made in other crops. All sectors of the wheat-based foods industry appear ready to face up to the task at hand by being sure unacceptable negatives and risks are avoided in carrying out an industrywide effort in behalf of scientific progress that offers so very much.

Read Baking & Snack's exclusive biotech wheat report in one PDF
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