Millers consider the future of wheat

by Jay Sjerven
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MARCO ISLAND, FLA. — Three major presentations given at the North American Millers’ Association soft wheat milling division meeting on Marco Island in mid-February considered a time in the not too distant future when bioengineering may develop a new generation of wheat varieties that will make the crop more attractive to producers considering what to plant and to millers and bakers seeking the development of varieties with traits that will ensure wheat remains a nutritious and popular staple in the American diet.

Adrianne Massey, managing director, science and regulatory affairs, Biotechnology Industry Organization, Washington, proved to be a spirited as well as informative advocate for bioengineering in general and in crop production in particular. Dr. Massey explained that bioengineering was only the latest in a continuous stream of intentional human interventions that have modified the genetic makeup of crop plants and domesticated animals over thousands of years. She made the point that of all such human interventions, bioengineering was the most precise and purposeful and even the least likely to have unintended consequences.

Millers had great “takeaways” from Dr. Massey’s presentation as they considered what the renewed attention to bioengineering wheat may portend for their industry and customers, the consuming public.

Paul Penner, owner of Penner Farms of Hillsboro, Kas., and president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, spoke of the work of the Wheat Innovation Alliance in preparing the groundwork for public acceptance of bioengineered wheat. Mr. Penner said the alliance has brought together wheat growers with others in what he called the grain chain, including NAMA, the American Bakers Association, U.S. Wheat Associates and research and technology companies.

Mr. Penner said as a producer, his decisions on what to plant are based on what returns likely would be provided by the various field crops. He said in recent years, wheat has lost acres to corn and soybeans, crops that have reaped benefits from biotechnology since the mid-1990s with regard to increased yields, range for growing and crop management. The bottom line was many producers who otherwise would plant wheat have found they could make more money by growing bioengineered corn or soybeans.

Mr. Penner said to be competitive with those crops, wheat, too, must be positioned to realize benefits from the advanced agricultural technologies.

“Biotechnology will allow us to increase beneficial characteristics or possibly decrease unfavorable characteristics in wheat,” he said.

Bioengineering may improve the farmer’s ability to grow wheat with less impact on the environment by reducing pesticide, fertilizer and water use. It also may help wheat crop fare better through volatile weather, Mr. Penner said.

For the miller and baker, bioengineering may help develop wheat varieties with increased fiber and mineral content. It even may be possible to engineer a reduced-gluten or gluten-free wheat, Mr. Penner said. Bioengineering also may make it possible to develop varieties with many other traits that would benefit both producers and end users.

Consumer acceptance of the notion of bioengineered wheat was growing, Mr. Penner said. He pointed to International Food Information Council studies indicating 70% of consumers were somewhat likely or very likely to buy foods made from wheat engineered to use less land, water and/or pesticides, and 69% of consumers said they would buy bread, crackers, cookies, cereals or pasta made with flour from wheat modified by bioengineering to provide enhanced nutritional benefits.

Mr. Penner said the hope was wheat food products made from bioengineered wheat may be available on grocery shelves by 2023. In the meantime, there was much work to be done.  He said the alliance will convene a Wheat Forum sometime in 2014.

“We are all in this together,” Mr. Penner said.

David B. Schmidt, president and chief executive officer, International Food Information Council & Foundation, Washington, spoke on how to communicate the benefits of modern agriculture including biotechnology. IFIC is partner with NAMA and 117 other food industry organizations, scientific societies and universities in the Alliance to Feed the Future, whose mission it is to raise awareness and improve understanding of the benefits and necessity of modern food production and technology in order to meet global demand.

Mr. Schmidt pointed to IFIC’s newly published “Food Biotechnology: A Communicator’s Guide to Improving Understanding,” which it prepared under a partnering agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service. He said the guide not only will be useful in educating the American public on biotechnology but will be used in American embassies abroad to communicate the benefits of biotechnology to trading partners.

Mr. Schmidt discussed what he called IFIC’s 10 biotechnology communication tenets.

1. The purpose for each new product of food biotechnology and its benefits must be explained clearly at the beginning of public discussion.

2. Biotechnology must be placed in context with the evolution of agricultural practices.

3. Emphasis should be placed on farmers who plant the seeds that already contain beneficial traits developed through biotechnology.

4. An accurate, rather than absolute, view of food and environmental safety determinations by regulators should be communicated for each product in each country.

5. Communications should emphasize the exhaustive research over many years that led to the introduction of each new product of food biotechnology.

6. Communications should underscore that additional food labeling requirements are necessary when there is a significant change in the composition or nutritional value of a food or if a potential food allergen is introduced from the use of biotechnology.

7.  Government and industry communications on food biotechnology must be consistent in order to earn consumer confidence.

8.  Consumer group activism does not necessarily reflect consumer attitudes, and many consumer groups support or do not oppose biotechnology.

9.  Multinational approvals on many products of food biotechnology are the result of strong international scientific consensus.

10. It is important to stress that food biotechnology also provides important benefits in addressing hunger and food security throughout the world.

 The presentations were well received and gave millers much to think about as they looked to the future.
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