A WELL-ORGANIZED WHEAT INDUSTRY IS CAUTIOUSLY MAPPING A BIOTECH ENTRY
Despite the market uncertainty regarding GMO commodities, the wheat industry is buzzing with anticipation over its own pilgrimage into biotech territory, which is expected within the next three years or so.
"I’m optimistic but cautious," summarizes Henry Kiser, president of the International Grains Program at Kansas State University, echoing many other industry players on the eve of what will be a delicate mission.
Many farmers have already had the opportunity to use transgenic offerings in other crops. Now, the wheat industry is hoping to benefit from the lag-time in technological adoption as the possibilities of a GMO-launch loom closer.
"We view our customers as number one, and we want to be able to provide what our customers want," summarizes Darrell Hanavan, executive director of the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee and chairman of the industry’s national biotechnology committee. "It gets back to consumer education and being able to back up what we say we are going to do."
A Roundup-tolerant spring wheat is likely to be the first biotech product to reach the market during the next three to five years. Theoretically, if that technology is readily adopted, 25 percent of U.S. wheat production could be GMO varieties within five years.
By starting work now, the wheat industry’s biotech committee, which consists of farmer-leaders in the National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates, along with assistance from the companies that are developing biotech products, hopes to avoid snags that have hit other GMO crops. The extent of planning and the cooperation between growers, corporations and other segments of the industry is unique. It reveals an evolutionary process in the way agribusiness is managing biotechnology.
"Our approach to bringing a biotech product to market has changed based on the introduction of biotech in other commodities," says Kelly Claus, a public affairs official for Monsanto, St. Louis. "In the past we largely based our approach on getting all the technical items right. Introducing it into the grain handling system was a very small part of our plan."
With wheat, however, Monsanto has crafted a 12-step offensive, which is half dedicated to managing the product in the production and delivery system. "With the industry’s help, can we put together a system that would insure that the grains from a RR crop will not enter export channels before they are ready to handle it?" Claus questions. "Another thing is making sure, from a best management practices standpoint, that we have addressed any outcropping, weed shift or volunteer management concerns."
CLOSING THE LOOP
Delivering an identity-preserved product through a high-volume grain handling system is no small task.
The significance of StarLink and its ramifications aren’t lost on wheat growers. Their product is a food commodity, after all, and heavily dependent on foreign markets.
Phil Kenkel, formerly an agricultural economist at the University of Tennessee and now at Oklahoma State University, has been working on the economics of segregation strategies for small grains.
"Clearly, in retrospect, StarLink happened because we were trying to do IP-storage within a commodity system," Kenkel says. It was an inevitable clash between what he calls a "blending mindset" in grain handling and strict tolerances on GMO residues equivalent to one-millionth of a drop in a swimming pool.
The fallout has been costly. One food processor spends $3/day testing corn for traces of the rogue gene, Kenkel said.
Monsanto is forming a wheat industry advisory committee to provide input on a new IP system. Part of the committee’s challenge will be to identify end-users who will accept GMO grains and possibly to encourage the use of on-farm storage.
"We in the industry hope that IP isn’t the long-term solution," says Monsanto’s Claus. "It could be the near-term solution that enables growers to start using the technology sooner. We would hope that with acceptance of biotech overseas and when the registration system in Europe starts working again, we could move biotech into the commodity system."
Likewise, the wheat biotech committee opposes mandatory labeling of GMO products. "We believe that biotech products are substantially equivalent to their counterparts, and if you label them, that distinguishes them," Hanavan says.
Domestic requirements are only the first frontier, however. Wheat officials are pushing for international standardization of the term genetically modified. "When you talk about labeling products of biotechnology, different countries use different tolerances. The concern would be whether an IP system and testing program would meet those different tolerances," Hanavan says.
Hanavan recently returned from a trade mission to Tokyo, Japan. "The Japanese millers wanted to talk with the U.S. wheat industry about biotechnology," he says. "They believe biotech has a promising future in Japan, but at the present time, they say the consumer won’t accept it. They believe it will have a future, however, and there is a lot of biotech research going on."
"Also, I think some of the millers felt commercialization was imminent and it’s not," he continues. "They want to be in a dialogue with us on this, and it’s going to be an ongoing dialogue. They just want to know they are being heard."
Japan is typically the largest market for U.S. wheat exports. They buy from all classes, including a substantial amount of spring wheat. Japan also generally sets acceptance trends for other Asian markets.
"The Japanese are questioning right now whether a viable IP system can be developed in the U.S.," he adds. Seiji Terada, director of U.S. Wheat Associates’ Tokyo office, reported that even with an IP system in place, Japanese millers would be reluctant to buy U.S. wheat. They dispute the likelihood that the U.S. wheat industry can create an IP system that is reliable and inexpensive. In addition, millers are concerned about the costs of nationally mandated labeling and testing requirements in their own country.
Currently, the USDA insures non-GMO purity by issuing letters to foreign buyers stating that no biotech wheat is grown in the U.S. Those letters would cease once any biotech wheat is commercialized.
Wheat growers would eventually like to see biotech yield varieties with obvious consumer benefits. "We really want a golden wheat like the so-called ‘golden rice’ that would make introduction much easier," Hanavan "dmits. An example would be addressing human gluten intolerances.
One potential consumer benefit already offered by the new technology is lower chemical usage. "What we hear the most is that we need a consumer-friendly product, and that’s one of the messages the Japanese gave us. The pesticide issue is big in Japan," he says. AM (sidebar below)
Candace Krebs is a freelance writer based in Enid, Okla.
MONSANTO PLEDGES ALLEGIANCE
The launch of Roundup-Ready wheat is giving Monsanto, St. Louis, an opportunity to put its pledge into practice.
The pledge, announced last November, was in response to input from activist groups, customers and consumers on how Monsanto could improve itself.
"There are two things we found out about ourselves," says Kelly Claus, agriculture communications consultant with Monsanto’s Industry Affairs. "First of all, a lot of times we were probably very arrogant in the way we approached the technology. Secondly, sound science and all the safety precautions in the world sometimes aren’t enough. What we needed to do was more outreach. We needed to listen to people, respect their concerns and find a way to bring the technology to the world without pushing it too hard."
In terms of Roundup-Ready wheat development, that has meant extensive meetings with state and national wheat leaders and staff members to update them on technical - and what she calls "stewardship" - issues. "The idea is to involve them in the process rather than come to them at the end and say, ‘We’re done. Are you ready for us?’ That’s part of a whole different approach. Hopefully, we’ll be doing things a lot smarter and better than we have in the past."
Involving members of the industry in planning and putting together a closed loop identity preservation system is a "much different approach than we’ve ever taken," she adds.
"When it comes right down to it, and we are faced with some really tough decisions, we might delay a product launch or something like that," she says. "But the overall goal is that when it’s introduced, it’s introduced responsibly, and the industry is supportive, and the growers feel like they can make it work." AM