KANSAS CITY — An expansion of the number of stakeholders discussing the commercialization of bioengineered wheat highlighted the third meeting of the Wheat Summit in Kansas City last week.
The Wheat Summit has sought to bring together for discussions and to find common ground representatives up and down the wheat foods chain, including growers, wheat merchandisers, millers and bakers. The group first met in September 2006 as a concerted response to the drop of U.S. wheat acreage by a third over the course a single generation.
During an Oct. 14 press conference after last week’s summit, Daren Coppock, chief executive officer of the National Association of Wheat Growers, said a major point of difference at this year’s meeting was the inclusion of representatives of Canada and Australia. In May, groups from Canada and Australia, together with the United States, signed a joint statement committing to work toward the objective of "synchronized commercialization of biotech traits in the wheat crop" (see Milling & Baking News of May 19, Page 1).
"We also had a very involved discussion with wheat breeders and technology transfer directors from public universities," Mr. Coppock said. "(Representatives from the )Agricultural Research Service were there, as were seed certification industry representatives, all dealing with issues about how are we licensed and how we’ll be able to transfer material back and forth to create public/private partnerships and really make this technology available on a broad scale."
The meeting, which was attended by a record 90 registrants, marked a continued evolution of the group toward a tight focus on biotechnology. By contrast, biotechnology was only one of a number of major issues at the 2006 meeting, which focused broadly on technology and research, domestic policy, domestic competition and exports.
Mr. Coppock said the Wheat Summit is moving forward deliberately, recognizing the difficulty of the issues it is confronting and the lack of a near-term deadline for resolving those issues.
"We have the luxury with a little bit of time because even with the announcements of a number of investments in wheat, we’re still a decade away from seeing biotech wheat in commercial production anywhere in the world," he said.
Among the most difficult issues to be resolved remains tolerances, Mr. Coppock said. He noted, though, the tolerance issue was not a central focus of the Wheat Summit. Instead, tolerances have been taken up by the International Grain Trade Coalition, a coalition of 22 national and international non-profit trade associations and councils, he said.
Elizabeth A. (Betsy) Faga, president of the North American Millers’ Association, described the summit as "very useful."
"The new groups broadened the discussion in a positive way," she said.
Ms. Faga described a sub-group within the Wheat Summit that has emerged as the strongest and most involved proponents of wheat biotechnology.
"We have a steering committee from the Wheat Summit made up of those who want to spend more concerted time discussing biotechnology and what kinds of things we can do to move along a positive path," she said. "Those tend to be organizations that have signed the documents favoring wheat biotechnology and are comfortable being out there publicly saying we are working together working toward a path toward commercialization."
In addition to the May statement that included representatives of Australia and Canada, a second statement supportive of the exploration of bioengineered wheat was signed in September by a range of U.S. stakeholders (see Milling & Baking News of Sept. 22, Page 8).
"A lot of discussion at the summit was around what kind of communication we need to put together, both more technical and communication that anyone in the public could access to learn more about biotechnology," Ms. Faga said. "That is gradually coming to fruition. We want to bring more stakeholders in from other countries. We feel good about the progress we’ve made so far."
While market acceptance will be the principal focus for the Wheat Summit in the months and years ahead, Mr. Coppock warned that major, sudden breakthroughs are not necessarily imminent. Instead, he suggested gains would be made on a step-by-step basis.
"There is a hesitancy in market acceptance of bioengineered wheat, and we need to work to be sure that the market is ready," he said. "The fundamental principle is choice.
"I think you’ll see incremental progress. The Minneapolis Grain Exchange spring wheat futures contract prohibits the delivery of g.m. wheat. We need to take that issue up. We need to speak with food companies, retailers and non-governmental organizations to broaden our coalition. We need to add millers and bakers in other countries. We need to broaden the platform and then move forward from there."
Asked what traits likely would be the first commercially released for bioengineered wheat, Mr. Coppock said productivity stood out among a long list of possible traits with stress tolerance as a particular area of interest and drought tolerance an even more specific desired focus. He said such a trait would have the benefit of being conducive to trilateral application since drought tolerance is of great interest in the Canadian prairies and is desperately needed in drought-prone areas of Australia.
Ms. Faga, asked in a follow-up question about which traits were desired by the milling industry, said better milling qualities were on the top of the millers list in addition to traits that would enhance food safety.
"Milling quality may be in the next generation," she said. "We understand that this and other traits may not be at the very front of the line."
Mr. Coppock agreed that progress has been made with the baking industry, citing what he called "very good dialogue" with the American Bakers Association. He also identified as progress the decision by the Independent Bakers Association to sign the joint wheat industry statement in September enumerating the benefits that would follow the introduction of bioengineered wheat.
Working with wheat importers around the world will be one of the largest and most challenging issues that will be confronted in the years ahead, Mr. Coppock said. He described a situation in which the wheat growing industry has faced steadily declining wheat acreage on one hand but "much higher sensitivity about bioengineered wheat in certain countries in Asia and Europe."
Speaking on behalf of the registrants involved with wheat breeding and technology transfer was C. James Peterson, a professor of wheat breeding and genetics at Oregon State University in Corvallis and president of the National Wheat Improvement Committee.
"There are interesting changes in the industry with new investments in wheat and wheat research," Mr. Peterson said. "It’s time the universities had a look at themselves and their future and role in the commercialization of biotechnology.
"Universities bring strengths to the table in terms of germplasm and collaboration but they also have weaknesses when it comes to acting as a business partner, managing licenses, intellectual property rights and enforcement and liability issues. This was a unique opportunity to bring everyone to the table to discuss those challenges, get everyone on the same page and address these issues as a wheat community to more effectively set the stage for commercialization and value capture."