Commercialization may be a decade away, but varieties are in the pipeline
The Monsanto Co. has nearly tripled the acreage of its permitted field tests for genetically engineered wheat in 2012, bringing the total to 900 acres, according to USDA data.
Last year, the biotech developer obtained permits for 360 acres of transgenic wheat field tests, its first since 2004, when the company shelved plans for a glyphosate-resistant variety of the crop.
Experts say the expanding field tests indicate Monsanto is making progress in its development of new biotech wheat cultivars, though commercialization is still up to a decade away.
Field testing is expensive, so the increased acreage would indicate Monsanto is gaining confidence in the viability of the biotech varieties, said Arron Carter, a wheat breeder at Washington State University.
“If they’re investing in field testing, it’s definitely something they’re interested in,” he said.
Once a biotech developer identifies a new genetic trait in the laboratory setting, its researchers will typically insert it into multiple crop cultivars to ensure it’s stable, Carter said.
After that, biotech companies will plant the crop outdoors as part of a field test to determine how the new trait performs in “real world” conditions, he said. “There are so many unknowns.”
Monsanto has two biotech wheat projects that began moving through its “research pipeline,” but they are still in the earliest phase of study, according to an email from a company spokesperson.
One project is focused on increasing yields under “average stress growing conditions” and the other is an herbicide resistant trait, the spokesperson said. “Our current plan is to bring out our first commercial product as a stack of both the higher-yielding wheat and herbicide-tolerant wheat.”
The number of field test permits issued by USDA for biotech wheat has jumped significantly in the past two years, with other companies — Arcadia Biosciences, Biogemma USA and Limagrain Cereal Seeds — and public universities conducting research.
At this point, though, Monsanto has the most permits with the largest acreage of field tests in the U.S., according to USDA data.
Larger field tests generally indicate a crop is further along, as biotech developers want to see how it performs under broader pressure from insects, disease and field variations, said Doug Jones, executive director of Growers for Biotechnology.
Though Monsanto currently has the biggest field tests in the U.S., Jones said other major biotech developers are also pursuing transgenic wheat varieties, with research being conducted by Syngenta in Canada and Bayer in Australia.
“All these companies are working worldwide,” he said. “You may not see the permits here, but I can guarantee you the research is going on somewhere.”
Monsanto suspended its plans for glyphosate-resistant “Roundup Ready” wheat in 2004 due to concerns about foreign wheat markets.
Interest in transgenic wheat was revived in 2009 when major wheat groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia released a joint statement of support for biotech research, said Jane DeMarchi, director of government affairs for research and technology at the National Association of Wheat Growers.
“We really feel things are moving in the right direction,” she said.
With commercialization still likely years away, wheat groups have time to discuss the issue with buyers in international markets, DeMarchi said.
Due to growing populations and volatile food supplies, attitudes toward transgenic wheat may become more open.
“We’re on a very long time line,” she said.
The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group that’s critical of biotech crops, believes the wheat industry may be trying to wear down opposition to transgenic wheat, but the market’s view hasn’t changed.
“Nobody should be excited about genetically engineered wheat because nobody in the food industry wants it,” said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the group.
If anything, Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant wheat would run into more public skepticism today, he said. “People are questioning more and more whether they want their food crops doused in herbicides.”