U.S. export agency sees GM wheat as inevitable

It’s only a matter of time before North American farmers are growing genetically engineered wheat along with their soybeans, corn and canola, according to Vince Peterson, vice-president of overseas operations with U.S. Wheat Associates.

Speaking at the Canada Grains Council annual meeting Monday in Winnipeg, he estimated genetically engineered wheat would be commercially grown within the next seven to 10 years.

While widespread resistance caused Monsanto to abandon plans for introducing a Roundup Ready wheat back in 2004, Peterson said sentiment amongst both the industry and consumers have changed in recent years to the point where it’s now “a matter of when, not if” GE wheat becomes commercially grown.

Peterson said herbicide tolerance was no longer the characteristic most likely to be genetically engineered into wheat. Rather, traits such as drought and disease resistance were where research is now pointed.

Issues such as consumer acceptance, protection of export markets, supply chain management and regulatory approvals all need to be overcome, and Peterson expected GE wheat would be grown for the U.S. or Australian domestic markets first before expanding into other markets.

It’s much easier to segregate GE soybeans or corn, he said, while with wheat there are many more classifications.

Peterson said there was a need for modern biotechnology in wheat production, as the crop has lagged behind both soybeans and corn in planted area and average yields over the past 20 years.

At the same time, the global population is expected to hit nine billion by 2050, leading to an increased demand for wheat. He argued biotechnology is the best way to meet that rising demand.

In addition to his group — a checkoff-funded export development agency headquartered in Arlington, Va. — other industry associations, including bakers, were also starting to look more favourably on GE wheat, he said.

While GE wheat may still be a few years away, Peterson said efforts were underway to move forward on a number of fronts.

“No one wants to be the first (to introduce GE wheat), but they don’t want to be the second either,” he said.

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