GROWERS BALANCE TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES WITH CONSUMER ACCEPTANCE
by Candace Krebs, Contributing Editor
Many sighs of relief accompanied Monsanto's May announcement that the company would indefinitely suspend all efforts to commercialize Roundup Ready wheat. During six years of development, consumers and growers gradually became more ambivalent about the technology, leaving the wheat industry in a tight spot and the St. Louis-based agribusiness holding the bag.
But across grain fields from Texas to North Dakota, brows were also knit by a shadow of concern. Did Monsanto's wrenching decision represent more than the fate of a single product, already some $30 million in the making? Did it symbolize a new stage in the adoption of advanced crop technology that would nullify America's traditional source of competitive advantage and leave wheat growers particularly vulnerable?
While generating $8.6 billion cash annually from all classes, wheat lags other crops in technological development, and the gap is widening. "Acreage planted in the spring wheat market in the U.S. and Canada has declined nearly 25 percent since 1997," observed Carl Casale, executive vice president of Monsanto, at the time of the announcement.
In addition, the international marketplace has been reluctant to accept genetically modified wheat like it has other crops, namely corn and soybeans. Other food crops like canola - a popular food oil grown mostly in Canada - already rely heavily on genetic modification.
"Maybe the idea that bread is the staff of life has something to do with it," McReynolds ventures, with a bemused shake of his head. "Customers don't always have to be sensible in their reasoning. But a producer can't change his mind as quickly as the consumer can change his."
Nicholson says the campaign wasn't a knee-jerk reaction to biotech.
"Farmers are willing to accept this technology if there's something in it for them," he says. "But we are taking the position that we oppose the unconfined release of a biotech wheat unless stringent conditions are met and a cost-benefit analysis is undertaken to prove it is in our best interests."
The 4,300-acre farmer from Shoal Lake, Manitoba, says the CWB was prepared to take legal action if necessary to protect its markets. Roughly 50 percent of Canada's farmland is in wheat, making the "premium brand identity" of a non-GMO product extremely important to the world's largest single seller of wheat and barley. According to Nicholson, 87 percent of Canada's wheat customers require a non-GMO guarantee, a percentage that has increased in recent years. In fact, the United States itself is among the trading partners they list that require non-GMO certification, along with Japan, Mexico, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Colombia, Italy and Indonesia.
Despite strong opposition to Monsanto's research into Roundup Ready wheat, Canadian farmers could yet prove to be big advocates of GM wheat. Swiss company Syngenta is currently developing a biotech-derived wheat resistant to fusarium head blight, or scab, a fungal disease that afflicts northern spring wheat. Commercial release is expected in three or four years.
"Farmers are more concerned about fusarium-resistant wheat than the Roundup Ready technology, because weeds are not as important to us as quality," Nicholson says. "It could lead to a much more difficult debate at the farm level."
If a fusarium-resistant wheat can prevent harmful toxicity levels in grain, millers might assign it "enough value to turn the tide" in favor of GM grain, adds Gord Flaten, the CWB's director of product development and marketing support.
Keith Kisling, the chairman of U.S. Wheat Associates, concurs, based on his participation in a recent trade mission to the East Asian countries of Japan, Taiwan, Korea and the Philippines. "If it's important to the quality of flour, it benefits the end user," says the Burlington, Okla., diversified grain and beef producer. "That's why we told the Japanese millers, 'don't say never and don't say zero-tolerance.' They need to know there are advantages to biotech wheat."
Another key to future adoption will be proving that segregation is affordable and feasible and establishing reasonable tolerances in the international marketplace. Opponents of biotech believe lack of segregation places an unfair "either-or" alternative on both consumers and farmers. "Cross-contamination of seed crops with GM seed is now so pervasive that seed companies will no longer guarantee '100 percent GM-free' for any field crop that has been subject to genetic modification," says E. Ann Clark, a professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
The introduction of a genetically engineered version essentially eliminates the possibility of growing that crop organically, adds Nadege Adam, a biotechnology spokesman for the Council of Canadians. "Two years ago, 200 farms in Canada grew organic canola; now there's only one," he says. "You cannot have an organic crop and a GE crop in the same area. The two simply cannot coexist."
Soybeans prove it can be done, he adds. "I don't think it took long in the soybean market before there were two prices, one for biotech and another for non-biotech," he says. "The consumer decided almost immediately what he was willing to pay, and that varied over time. Opponents of biotech say there are less seedstocks available but that's because the bulk of the sales activity is in the GM vs. the non-GM area. When the marketplace wants that non-GM seedstock, it will be there."
The preferences of a few should not infringe on the good of the majority who benefit from advancing technology, he adds. "The greatest thing we can do is make sure the consumer has all of the options."
Skogan cites a survey of 400 food shoppers taken last winter by North Dakota State University that showed nearly 80 percent had favorable attitudes toward genetically modified food. "One thing we have to be careful to protect is the 80 percent of our wheat customers that are indifferent about whether it is a biotech crop," he continues. "Others will require some level of segregation, and they need to expect to pay for that. But we need to be careful not to take away from the 80 percent the option to benefit from cheaper, safer and more environmentally friendly foods through the use of biotechnology."
Duane Grant, a past president of the Idaho Grain Producers Association and national biotech committee member who farms several thousand acres of wheat and other crops near Rupert, Idaho, recommends developing a marketing system to "accommodate and monetize" unique market preferences. He spent eight weeks traveling through Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France and Italy on an Eisenhower Fellowship, studying the continent's attitude toward GMOs. He agrees that segregation capabilities are increasingly important and says the U.S. land grant university system and the U.S. agriculture department need to take proactive roles to make it work.
"The distinction between genetically modified foods and conventional foods is becoming a fully integrated marketing distinction within European food and feed trade and shows no sign of dissipating," he reports. "Understanding that coexistence starts at the seed level and continues through the chain until final consumption, the U.S. should review its seed laws, transportation systems and marketing systems to identify critical control points."
Grant thinks the United States should study the costs of implementing a nationwide tracking system from field to fork. He also emphasizes that the government is a necessary "third party" for establishing and maintaining credibility in meeting contract specifications in the global marketplace.
Activists, both for and against biotechnology, easily become polarized with such divergent viewpoints. Tom Morton, an Oxford, Kan., wheat farmer accuses extremists of "poisoning the well of information." He cites the food aid donation to starving Africans that was turned down because of concerns over environmental impacts. "They weren't going to plant it, they were going to eat it," he exclaims in disgust.
Others believe agribusinesses haven't been responsible enough in developing traits with widespread consumer appeal. So far, the bulk of biotech developments are aimed at cutting production costs and increasing productivity, leaving consumers unaware of the full range of potential long-term benefits.
"It seems to me that an issue being raised is whether the development of GM characteristics in plants will shift away from enhancing yield and other production characteristics toward enhancing characteristics that benefit consumers directly - such as medicinal characteristics," says Carl Zulauf, a professor of agricultural economics education at The Ohio State University.
"It's a food safety issue, an environmental issue, an ethical/cultural issue, religious issue, development issue, issue with trade laws, and they are all tied up in the globalization debate," adds Ian Sheldon, another Ohio State ag economist. "Research in agricultural biotechnology is slowing down. It's in limbo until some of the issues are resolved, if they are ever resolved."
Darrell Hanavan, executive director of the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee in Denver and chairman of the wheat industry's biotechnology committee, acknowledges that his group's work is far from finished. In fact, now is a crucial "window of opportunity to prepare the market for successful commercialization," he says.
The conflict over Roundup Ready wheat is a speed bump on a much longer road, he believes. "The philosophy in the past has been to force the market to accept biotech," he says. "I would have to give Monsanto credit for their approach with Roundup Ready wheat. They collaborated with the wheat industry and together we came to the conclusion the time was not right for commercialization."
"Roundup Ready wheat was not necessarily in the best interests of Kansas producers, so it was hard to get excited about that trait," adds Alan Fritz, Kansas State University's wheat breeder. "The loss of research investment in wheat is probably the biggest negative. But the promise is too great to pass on it forever." AM
Editor's Note: In late July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Monsanto's genetically modified wheat for human and livestock consumption. Despite the approval, Monsanto Company says it remains committed to its promise not to commercialize GMO wheat until there is broader acceptance.
Candace Krebs is a freelance writer based in Enid, Okla.