Wheat industry groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia recently agreed to “work toward the goal of synchronized commercialization of biotech traits in the wheat crop.” This comes five years after Monsanto abandoned its early efforts to develop herbicide resistant wheat due to the lack of acceptance by wheat producers in the U.S. who feared loss of major export markets. The industry groups recognize “it was in the best interest of all three producer communities to introduce biotechnology in a coordinated fashion to minimize market disruption.”

This decision was not a snap judgment. Industry estimates indicate it takes ten years and a $100 million to develop a biotech crop trait and receive regulatory approval. The National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) in the U.S. in November of 2008 adopted seven principles for commercialization of biotech wheat: (1) the technology provider should develop a dialogue with NAWG before seeking regulatory approval, (2) regulatory approval for food and feed use in all major wheat exporting countries, (3) not impair the ability of non-biotech wheat to meet commercial standards for the presence of biotech traits, (4) a trait detection test developed by the technology provider, (5) the technology provider should have the primary responsibility for education and outreach, (6) the technology provider should demonstrate stewardship of the technology, and (7) the certified seed model used in the U.S. is the preferred approach for delivery of the technology.

In the joint announcement the industry groups stressed four points: (1) Wheat is a vital food and biotechnology can provide for higher yields per acre and improved nutritional content, (2) where biotech varieties of other crops are available growers of wheat are shifting to the other crops because of higher incomes, (3) biotechnology is a proven technology with over ten years of use and a record of safety and environmental benefits, and (4) wheat’s lacks of public and private research has left it behind compared to other crops. In 2008-09 wheat was still the largest crop in the world in area harvested at 554 million acres, 26.8 percent of the ten major crops, but area harvested in this decade has grown less than half the amount for corn and one-third the amount for oilseeds.

Since farmers in the U.S. were given flexibility under the 1996 farm bill to decide what crops to plant, U.S. wheat acreage harvested for grain declined from 62.8 million acres in 1996/97 to 46.8 million acres in 2006/07 before recovering to 55.7 million acres in 2008/09 and declining to a projected 48.9 million acres in 2009/10. North Dakota, the second largest state in area harvested behind Kansas, where mostly hard spring wheat and durum wheat are grown is often used as an example of the shift from wheat and to biotech crops like corn and soybeans. Wheat acres harvested declined from 12.5 million acres in 1996/97 to 8.6 million acres by 2008/09, while corn acres increased from 0.6 million acres to 2.3 million acres and soybeans from 0.8 million acres to 3.8 million acres. Over that same time period Canadian acreage declined from 30.3 million acres to 24.8 million acres. Australia is the exception as wheat acres harvested increased from 27.0 million acres in 1996/97 to 33.3 million acres in 2008/09. Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan have been filling some of the shortfall in area harvested.

Wheat producers in the U.S. are interested in the potential for drought tolerant wheat now that drought tolerant corn for western U.S. dryland areas may be available from Monsanto as early as 2012. Some U.S., Canadian and Australia wheat is grown in lower rainfall areas where alternative crops are limited. Australia is a leader in drought tolerant wheat research with some field trials completed and others ongoing. Frost tolerant crops would also be of benefit, even in relatively warm climates like Oklahoma which is suffering from frost damage in April of this year. Work has also begun on nitrogen efficient corn that would also be valuable for wheat. Fusarium head blight is a fungal disease in the U.S. and Canada that reduces yields and grades and some biotech field trials have been completed by Syngenta. Biotechnology may also help develop resistance to a new strain of stem rust called Ug99 that wheat breeders worldwide are working to overcome.

Not every group is ready to sign on to biotech wheat. The Canadian Wheat Board, the government-granted monopoly marketer of Western Canada’s wheat and barley, announced they will not support biotech wheat until international buyers of wheat provide assurances they will accept it. Consumers in Japan and the EU are the most concerned about biotech crops. The Wheat Board wants a wider focus that just herbicide tolerance, including fusarium resistance, increased yields and improved quality. They are also concerned about segregating biotech and non-biotech wheat. Most of their concerns are not much different from those expressed by NAWG in their November 2008 principles.

Planning ahead six, eight or ten years for consumer acceptance is not an easy call for any food item, but necessary with the time needed to develop biotech traits and receive regulatory approval. Wheat growers have a few factors in their favor not present five years ago. First, biotech crops have now been produced for 13 years on over 2 billion acres around the globe without illnesses from the crops. Second, the recent episode of high food prices has reminded consumers that an adequate supply of food is the ultimate consumer value. With the world population expected to grow from the current 6.8 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050, food security will remain a major challenge. Third, another biotech food crop, rice, is already waiting to come on stage. The Chinese regulatory authorities have done all of the required testing to move biotech insect resistant rice to market with estimated benefits of $4.0 billion per year. Also, rice breeders may release by 2011 a "golden rice" genetically engineered to fight Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.

As in all markets where regulations do not preclude making choices, consumers will decide if biotech wheat will succeed. The U.S. wheat industry has decided that current technology will not keep them competitive short term or long term. Federal and state governments bogged down with staggering unfunded future liabilities will not fund the needed research. The price for progress will be paid by wheat growers through increased productivity from new biotech seeds.