Bioengineered wheat finally gaining focus, but many other crops well ahead

BakingBusiness.com, July 13, 2010
by Ron Sterk

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China’s acceptance in June of the first cargo of U.S. corn in about four years — corn that was bioengineered — and a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on bioengineered alfalfa seed demonstrated the growing domestic and global acceptance of such crops with one notable exception: wheat. But the tide appears to have turned last year as work on bioengineered wheat was reignited by some key plant breeders.
While there still are some significant holdouts, mainly in Europe and Japan, restricting use of bioengineered food and feed crops, especially wheat, most countries have accepted their use. And producers of corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, rice, sugar beets and other bioengineered crops have benefited financially from their adoption, often at the expense of wheat acres.
In its first case involving bioengineered crops, the U.S. Supreme Court in late June ruled that a lower court was in error when it banned the planting of Monsanto Co.’s bioengineered alfalfa seed. The suit, filed in 2006 in the Northern District of California by environmental groups and other seed companies, claimed the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not properly assess the environmental impact of bioengineered alfalfa, which, it claimed, may harm the environment. The High Court didn’t give blanket approval of bioengineered alfalfa, but said the U.S.D.A. could allow restricted planting while it finishes its environmental study, expected before spring planting in 2011.
“We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision and look forward to the U.S.D.A. giving its approval, which is necessary to clear the way for bringing Roundup Ready alfalfa back to the U.S. market in the near future,” Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics International, said after the ruling. “We believe the Court’s ruling is a strong indication that decisions about agriculture technology should be based on solid data and sound science.”
The use of Roundup Ready alfalfa resulted in yield benefits of about $100@115 an acre, according to Forage Genetics International, a wholly owned subsidiary of Land O’Lakes, Inc., Arden Hills, Minn.
While the alfalfa ruling didn’t throw the door wide open for the use of bioengineered seed in the United States, it was an encouraging sign for growers awaiting a lower court’s decision in another case, also in California’s Northern District, with many similarities involving the planting of Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds, introduced in 2008 with the “highest ever” first year adoption of bioengineered seed, claiming 59% of plantings, and currently accounting for more than 90% of total U.S. sugar beet acreage, according to industry estimates. A lawsuit filed by several organic farming, consumer and environmental groups again claimed the U.S.D.A. did not properly assess potential harm to the environment. A hearing in the case was scheduled for late last week.
While crops have been modified for decades and maybe even centuries through the process of breeding for desirable traits, such as increased yields, stalk strength or stem height, for example, the idea of bioengineered seeds is more recent, having come into its own only in the last 15 years.
One focus of bioengineering has been to modify crops so they may tolerate specific herbicides that otherwise would have killed the crop along with weeds, thus allowing farmers more options for weed control, which typically has an impact on yield as well as input costs. Monsanto has been a leader in herbicide tolerant crops because of the popularity of its Roundup (glyphosate) herbicide, which otherwise kills all plants (weeds and crops) by contact. Use of the Roundup Ready trait has been widespread and includes several seed categories.
Another key direction for bioengineered crops has been insect resistance, in which crops fend off certain destructive insects without the use of insecticides, which again may boost yields and reduce costs. The focus has been introduction of a gene from the soil bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) into corn and cotton beginning in 1996. The bacteria produce a protein toxic to specific insects, including destructive corn borers and rootworms.
When more than one bioengineered trait is contained in a single seed, the traits are said to be “stacked.”
In its June 30 Acreage report, the U.S.D.A. included data on the three most widely grown bioengineered crops in the United States: corn, soybeans and cotton.
A random survey indicated about 75.5 million acres, or 86%, of the total 87.9 million corn acres were planted to various types of bioengineered varieties, up from 85% in 2009. The total acres planted included 16% insect-resistant
varieties (down from 17% a year earlier), 23% herbicide-resistant varieties (up from 22%) and 47% stacked varieties (up from 46%).
For soybeans, about 73.3 million acres, or 93%, of the total 78.9 million acres planted, were of bioengineered varieties, up from 91% in 2009. All bioengineered soybeans planted were herbicide resistant.
And for cotton, about 10.1 million acres, also 93%, of the total 10.9 million acres, were of bioengineered varieties, up from 88% a year earlier, including 15% insect-resistant varieties (down from 17% in 2009), 20% herbicide-resistant (down from 23%) and 58% stacked (up from 48%).
“U.S. farmers have adopted genetically engineered crops widely since their introduction in 1996, notwithstanding uncertainty about consumer acceptance and economic and environmental impacts,” the U.S.D.A.’s Economic Research Service said. Soybeans and cotton with bioengineered herbicide-tolerant traits were the most rapidly and widely adopted, the E.R.S. said, followed by insect-resistant corn and cotton.
Planting of herbicide-tolerant soybeans rose from 17% of total plantings in 1997 to 68% in 2001 to 93% this year, according to U.S.D.A. survey data. Herbicide-tolerant cotton planting grew from 10% in 1997 to 56% in 2001 to 78% in 2010. The adoption of herbicide-resistant corn was slower, the U.S.D.A. noted, before reaching 69% of total plantings in 2010.
According to the International Service
for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), farmers in 25 countries planted bioengineered crops in 2008, up from 6 in 1996. The 2008 total included 15 developing countries and 10 developed nations. Global plantings of bioengineered crops totaled 125 million hectares (312.5 million acres) in 2008.
“Notably, the 74-fold hectare increase between 1996 and 2008 makes biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in agriculture,” the ISAAA said.
While other bioengineered crops have been developed and adopted by many countries globally, wheat has been all but left out. After Monsanto “abandoned” its bioengineered wheat efforts in 2004, in part because there appeared limited pay back since a considerable amount of wheat is “seeded from the bin,” meaning growers simply plant seeds from the previous year’s crop rather than buy commercial seeds. There also was considerable market resistance, both domestic and export, at the time, which made growers reluctant to plant bioengineered crops out of fear they may not be able to sell the grain. Wheat area drifted lower while producers were planting more area to bioengineered varieties of corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops, which usually offered better returns.
“Wheat production and area is on a long-term downtrend in the United States,” five major wheat industry groups said in “The Case for Biotech Wheat” released in September 2009. “Net returns per acre to farmers favor other crops in all areas where options exist, and the differential is widening. Unless the wheat industry can successfully change the equation and restore its competitiveness, wheat is on a path to becoming a minor crop. While there are no ‘silver bullets,’ biotechnology can make a significant contribution to changing this competitiveness equation.”
Efforts were under way in 2006 with the publication of a paper titled “Addressing the Competitiveness Crisis in Wheat” by several wheat industry groups, but little progress toward the introduction of or even work on bioengineered wheat was made until 2009 with the culmination of multiple efforts, both domestically and globally. Those efforts included but were not limited to Wheat Summit meetings, a national survey that showed more than 75% of wheat growers supported bioengineered wheat, the threat of a major destructive wheat disease (UG99), potential new drought tolerant varieties of corn and soybeans, and a Trilateral Statement of Support from nine grower groups in the United States, Canada and Australia supporting a synchronized commercialization of bioengineered wheat.
In July 2009, Monsanto announced it would reenter the bioengineered wheat arena, with a twist. Rather than focus on developing the Roundup Ready trait focus would be on developing wheat that was drought tolerant, higher yielding and required less fertilizer, in addition to disease resistance and other agronomic traits.
Other companies and countries also have upped their attention to bioengineered wheat. Last week BASF Plant Science and Monsanto said they expanded their joint efforts to develop higher-yielding, stress-tolerant crops and added wheat to the four crops already under development, which included corn, soybeans, cotton and canola.
Despite the renewed interest, commercially ready bioengineered wheat is probably a decade away, Peter Reading, managing director of Australia’s Grains Research and Development Corp., told an International Grains Council conference meeting in London in early June. Mr. Reading indicated the focus for bioengineered wheat in Australia, the world’s fourth largest wheat exporter, will likely be “water use efficiency” in hopes of leveling out that nation’s large variations in annual production.
ISAAA on its Crop Biotech Update web site in late June said the Australian Office of Gene Technology Regulator had approved license for “limited and controlled release of up to 150 lines of genetically modified wheat for enhanced carbon assimilation in drought and heat prone
environments.” The license allowed a maximum of 0.1 hectare to be planted between 2010 and 2013.
Others have indicated new bioengineered wheat varieties may be available in as soon as five years, depending on the trait desired.
But many hurdles remain, not the least of which is the length of time needed to bring new varieties to market while other crops already have a running head start. For example, some estimate a drought tolerant variety of corn may be available in the United States as early as 2012, which may be a significant blow to wheat varieties planted in drier areas.
No sooner had the wheat industry reached some consensus to move forward with bioengineered wheat did the protests begin by various consumer protection, organic and other groups. As recently as February the Digital Journal reported on the “growing movement against genetically modified wheat.” It indicated 233 farmer and consumer groups in 26 countries were opposed to bioengineered wheat. Other surveys have indicated consumers, for the most part, have accepted food made from bioengineered crops, or more likely, at least have shown little concern.
It was in fact the prospect of lost marketing opportunities that was a key factor limiting interest in developing bioengineered wheat over the years. Ironically, most countries that oppose or opposed bioengineered wheat currently accept bioengineered corn, soybeans and certain other crops.
Another primary concern is that development of agronomic bioengineered traits in wheat not be at the expense of milling and baking quality. Flour millers and baking companies have stressed they need to be included when plant breeders develop new bioengineered wheat to ensure milling and baking qualities are not negatively affected. Acceptance by millers and bakers would be critical to the success of bioengineered varieties since they deal directly with end users. So far milling and baking industry sources have indicated little inclusion from plant breeders.
The ISAAA predicts 40 countries will adopt bioengineered crops by 2015, when the second decade of commercialization ends and when it is hoped world hunger may be reduced by half. The ISAAA, as do wheat growers around the world, see bioengineered crops as a key component in achieving that goal, or at least in making significant progress in reducing hunger. Monsanto, Kansas State University form
partnership to share technology, germplasm
MANHATTAN, KAS. — Kansas State University (K.S.U.) and Monsanto Co. have formed a partnership that will allow both to share germplasm and technology, and ultimately, improve their wheat breeding programs.
“Agreements of this type benefit the Kansas wheat growers, because they will have a greater selection of improved varieties from both public and private wheat breeding programs,” said Gary Pierzynski, interim dean of the K.S.U. College of Agriculture and interim director of K.S.U. Research and Extension. Mr. Pierzynski said both parties are free to form additional collaborative arrangements with other public or private entities.
“Specifically, Monsanto brings to the partnership technologies that will enable us to ‘genetically fingerprint’ those varieties,” Mr. Pierzynski said. “It will help us select specific genetic markers to provide improvements, such as disease and pest resistance.”
Allan Fritz, K.S.U. professor of agronomy and a wheat breeder, said working with private industry will give K.S.U. the ability to get improved varieties to market faster.
“For K-State’s program, this will provide breeders with accelerated wheat breeding processes, focusing our selection on plants that matter and targeting for critical traits,” he said.
Mr. Fritz said K.S.U. will continue to work with other public wheat breeding programs, as it has in the past.
Stakeholders in the Kansas wheat industry participated and offered important input about principles that should guide such collaborations.
“Kansas State University has a long history of working with wheat and in addressing stakeholder needs,” said Ernie Minton, associate director of research for K.S.U. Research and Extension. “This relationship is beneficial for the wheat industry as the collaboration will create opportunities for the improvement of agronomic performance and grain quality characteristics.”
In addition, the 2009 survey results from the National Association of Wheat Growers called for technology investment to improve profitability of wheat as a cropping option.
K.S.U. will continue efforts to develop and release wheat varieties with improved traits through the Kansas Wheat Alliance, Mr. Minton said. The goal is to benefit the Kansas wheat producer and the related wheat industry with improved traits.
“This partnership leverages Kansas State’s long-term investment in wheat breeding and increases our resources to continue this work,” said Kirk Schulz, president of K.S.U. “This type of innovative collaboration is necessary with limited state and federal resources.”
Sean Gardner, Monsanto’s global commercial wheat lead, added the collaboration is an important step for the wheat industry, as it brings together the unique and complementary breeding research of Monsanto and K.S.U. to develop better wheat varieties for growers.
“Kansas State researchers have a wealth of experience and knowledge in the field, and with our proven breeding technology experience, we see this collaboration as an excellent opportunity to produce successful new wheat varieties,” Mr. Gardner said. MBN

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