GMO wheat acceptance hinges on public benefit


By Rod Nickel
June 5, 2009

* European consumer support for GMO a decade away

* Public must benefit to support GMO, not just farmers

SASKATOON, Saskatchewan, June 5 (Reuters) – Winning over wary consumers in Europe and elsewhere to genetically modified wheat hinges on scientists finding a direct benefit to the public, not just to farmers or seed companies, experts in wheat breeding and genetics said.

Europeans, considered among the staunchest opponents of food created with genetically modified organisms (GMO), are at least a decade from accepting biotech food, said Meinolf Lindhauer from Germany’s Max Rubner federal research institute of nutrition and food.

"The majority of consumers in many European countries, not in all, do not accept GMO at all," he said while attending the International Wheat Quality conference in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

The only way for GMO wheat proponents to be heard above the arguments of anti-GMO groups is to demonstrate biotechnology could give consumers a "convincing advantage," he said.

One way might be modifying wheat so it could be eaten by people with celiac disease, a serious digestive condition caused by eating the protein gluten, he said.

In the long run, genetically modified wheat will be necessary to keep pace with corn and soybeans, said Robert Henry, director of the Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics in Lismore, Australia.

"In terms of the profitability for farmers to grow wheat versus maize, wheat has been left behind," he said. "My concern is that wheat is a very important food crop and at some point we need to correct that and produce more wheat."

Consumers support genetic modification to improve health, such as the production of drugs, but resistance is fixed on GMO food, Henry said.

"If the consumer perceives that the benefit is just for the producer or worse still, just for some big company that’s making a profit out of it, why would they want to adopt it? They really need to be convinced there’s some benefit for the environment from a point of view of their own health."

The sustainability of agriculture, considering growing per capita food consumption and limited arable land, will be central to the GMO wheat debate, Henry said.

The Canadian Wheat Board, one of the world’s largest wheat marketers, has said it won’t support GMO wheat unless it gains acceptance among world markets such as Europe and Japan. [ID:nN15274622]

Farm groups in the top wheat-exporting countries of Canada, the United States and Australia jointly called last month for commercial development of GMO wheat. Other farm and environment groups issued an opposing statement. [ID:nN14504499] [ID:nN01479359]

In 2004, Monsanto Co (MON.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) withdrew its application for a herbicide-resistant GMO wheat in the face of protest from U.S. wheat buyers and marketers such as the Canadian Wheat Board.

European consumers, especially those in Germany, Austria and France, are more likely to believe anti-GMO activist groups than scientists, Lindhauer said. Consumers and farmers in Australia are more open to genetically modified wheat than Europeans, but more wary than North Americans, Henry said.

In India, one of the developing countries driving higher food demand, farmers would support a GMO wheat modified to resist disease, said Harcharan Singh Dhaliwal of the Indian Institute of Technology in Uttarakhand, India. But Dhaliwal said consumers are harder to convince.

"(GMO wheat) would be the last choice," he said.

The public doesn’t understand how fine the line is between widely accepted plant-breeding techniques and genetic modification, Henry said. GMO refers to DNA tinkering that scientists perform outside the cell, before putting the modified DNA back inside, he said. Rearranging DNA within the cell describes traditional plant-breeding, he said.

(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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