G.M.O. wheat issues revolve around yield, acceptance

by Jeff Gelski
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GMO expert panel at ASB BakeTech 2015
From left, Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a scientist for the Consumers Union; Gordon Stoner, vice-president of the National Association of Wheat Growers; and Glen Weaver, a food scientist and research fellow for Ardent Mills, made up a panel at the American Society of Baking’s BakingTech 2015 in Chicago March 3.

CHICAGO — Any future deregulation and commercialization of bioengineered/genetically modified wheat in the United States would pose questions.

Might yield and disease-resistant traits lead more farmers to choose wheat? Could industry influence consumers about the safety and potential benefits of bioengineered wheat? Could U.S. companies avoid any tangled trade issues internationally?

Such questions were discussed March 3 in Chicago during a session at the American Society of Baking’s BackingTech 2015.

There is little question that U.S. acreage for corn and soybeans, two crops with approved bioengineered varieties in the United States, has fared better over the past few decades than the U.S. acreage for wheat.

In 1990 about 80 million acres of wheat were seeded in the United States, but that number in 2015 likely will be about 50 million acres, said Gordon Stoner, vice-president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, Washington. He added the United States’ global market share in wheat fell to about 15% today from about 50% in 1980.

Since 1994, corn yields in the United States have increased 67% while wheat yields have increased 35%, Mr. Stoner said, alluding to the idea bioengineered varieties would help wheat yields.

“We only ask that we have a full tool box to manage the risks, the diseases, the weather conditions that we deal with on a daily basis.” Mr. Stoner said.

Farmers have choices, said Glen Weaver, a food scientist and research fellow for Ardent Mills, which is based in Denver. They notice corn offers more revenue per acre than soybeans, and soybeans offer more revenue per acre than wheat.

Increasing wheat yield through bioengineering might assist efforts aimed at reducing world hunger, Mr. Weaver said. He added biotechnology offers other benefits besides yield. While people with celiac disease must avoid wheat because it has gluten, biotechnology might alleviate the sensitivities, he said.

Consumer views

How some U.S. consumers view bioengineered/genetically modified ingredients might make food companies wary of adding them to their products.

A Pew Research Center survey released Jan. 29 found 57% of U.S. adults said they believe genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat, said Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a scientist for the Consumers Union. Also, labels from the Non-GMO Project appear on more than 27,000 products, further proof that certain consumers seek to avoid bioengineered/G.M.O. products.

Internationally, 55 countries have zero tolerance for unapproved bioengineered traits, Dr. Hansen said. Recent lawsuits over a Syngenta bioengineered/genetically modified corn trait and access to the Chinese market show how bioengineering may affect international trade, he said.

Mr. Stoner said the United States exports more than 50% of its wheat crop.

“Without our exports, our wheat industry would be a much, much different situation,” he said.

Mr. Stoner pointed to a trilateral statement on biotechnology involving three major wheat-exporting countries in the United States, Canada and Australia. The statement said that if bioengineered wheat is commercialized, it should be brought forth from all three countries at the same time. If the United States commercializes G.M.O. wheat, a low level presence would be needed because of international trade issues, he said.

The labeling debate

Dr. Hansen and Mr. Stoner also addressed whether bioengineered/G.M.O. products should have a mandatory label.

Dr. Hansen said labeling is not just about nutrition and safety and pointed to country-of-origin labeling and labeling of irradiated foods. He compared efforts against mandatory G.M.O. labeling to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990.

“We heard arguments from industry that if we require that we put the fats and all these other things, that is going to cause all this commotion, and it’s going to cost all this money, and that hasn’t happened,” he said.

Dr. Hansen said there is no scientific consensus on the safety of bioengineered food.

“This does not mean that they are unsafe,” he said. “It just means that adequate safety assessments have not been done.”

Mr. Stoner said if consumers see a G.M.O. label on a product, they might assume the product must have a problem. He said he liked the idea of giving bioengineered information in the bar code of a product. Consumers could read the bar code by using a smart phone or an in-store scanner.

“For those that are concerned and care and want to know, it’s available,” he said.

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