By Carey Gillam
|Updated 11:20 AM ET August 16, 2000
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (Reuters) - A loaf of bread could soon become
From university laboratories to U.S. government-run
greenhouses, research is moving forward to bring the first
genetically modified (GMO) wheat to market as early as 2003.
The goals are noble -- to make wheat production more efficient
and robust for farmers and to make wheat better for bakers and
more nutritious for consumers.
But success may also open a new front in the global debate over
the safety of genetically modified foods as biotech wheat makes
its way into staples like bread, crackers and pasta.
"There is this fear of unleashing genes into the food
supply and into the environment," said Jim Peterson, a wheat
breeder at Oregon State University, which recently signed a deal
with Monsanto Co. to develop a gene-altered wheat. "Until we
can have a gene that has true consumer benefits, we are going to
have some trouble with acceptance."
Wheat is the second-largest food grain grown in the world --
corn is the first -- and is the top grain traded internationally,
making it subject to intense global scrutiny.
That fact, combined with a swarm of protests in the United
States, Europe and Asia over fears that GMO crops might harm human
health and the environment, have many in the wheat industry more
than a little nervous.
GMO advocates say the technology is safe, but so far, the
market is unconvinced.
"'If you grow GMO wheat, we will not want to buy it.'
That's what we're hearing from our customers," U.S. Wheat
Associates spokeswoman Dawn Forsythe said. "They're saying
'we see where it is helpful for your farmers, but what does it do
for us, and why should we buy it?"'
Forsythe said that the top importers of U.S. wheat, including
Egypt and Japan, have already said they want nothing to do with
SCIENCE FACES FIERCE PROTESTS
Despite the concerns, Oregon State and three other U.S.
universities have recently agreed with Monsanto, the leading
player in advancing genetically modified grain varieties, to
develop and bring to market a "Roundup Ready" spring
wheat as early as 2003.
The deals with Oregon State, Washington State University, South
Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota would
bring little direct benefit to consumers, who know spring wheat
mainly as the chief ingredient in bagels and rolls.
But farmers could theoretically save on production costs with
the herbicide-tolerant strain.
Monsanto is also in discussions with other universities for
research into different wheat classes, such as hard red winter
wheat, another bread staple.
Monsanto, which has been the subject of many anti-GMO protests,
became a unit of U.S.-Swedish drug firm Pharmacia Corp (PHA.N) in
March. Company officials declined to discuss the issue other than
to confirm that the company was currently in the research phase of
developing Roundup Ready wheat.
The work in GMO wheat comes amid a global firestorm of
controversy that is complicating efforts to promote modified corn,
a quarter of the U.S. crop, and soybeans, which make up more than
half of the soybeans that American farmers produce.
Protesters have vandalized and burned biotech university
laboratories in the United States, started a riot at an
international biotechnology industry meeting in Italy, and
ambushed a U.S. cargo ship in Wales carrying genetically modified
In addition to fears of damage to health and environment, some
GMO opponents also say companies pushing the technology want to
control the food supply.
WHEAT FARMERS WORRY
Similar opposition could be lying in wait for wheat, a crop
that amounted to $3.7 billion in U.S. exports last year and is one
of the United States' top agricultural export products.
And all of the controversy has wheat farmers in a bind. GMO
wheat could help boost their bottom line, or it could leave them
with bins full of unmarketable grain.
"Wheat farmers would like to embrace the technology but
they also are concerned about their export markets, which account
for 50 percent of total U.S. wheat production," said Darrell
Hanavan, head of a biotech committee of the National Association
of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates.
"Farmers are asking 'Is it going to be accepted?' We don't
know the answer to that," Hanavan said.
Many in the wheat industry are working on strategies for
segregation so U.S. wheat customers won't have to worry about GM0
wheat mixed in with non-GM0 wheat. But no clear plan has been
Meanwhile, a growing sentiment says the solution to market
acceptance is likely to be found in products that directly benefit
consumers, rather than farmers or large corporations.
As far as wheat goes, that day is a long way off, according to
Ann Blechl, a geneticist with the Agricultural Research Service of
the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Blechl is now working on GMO traits to give consumers wheat
with improved protein for bread and pasta, eliminating the
nutritional need for meat and bean proteins, as well as wheat with
better baking characteristics.
"In the present political climate I don't know how close
we'll ever get to bringing these things to market," she said.
University of Minnesota wheat breeder Jim Anderson, one of
those working on the new GMO spring wheat, is also less than
optimistic: "I don't know that anybody wants to be first with
this, and have to test the waters."