Debate over GM Wheat Reignites

17 June 2009

Farmers associations and environmental groups are rekindling the debate about whether to support research for genetically modified (GM) wheat.  A group of nine wheat organisations in the US, Canada, and Australia - the world's largest wheat exporters - issued a statement on 15 May calling for "the synchronized introduction of biotech wheat." Two weeks later, 15 groups opposing GM wheat issued a response offering point-by-point counterarguments against the crop's introduction.

The GM supporters' statement revived a debate many believed had run its course. In 2004, biotech company Monsanto shelved plans to develop an herbicide-resistant strain of GM wheat after hearing the concerns of farmers, buyers, and exporters, who feared such a seed would cause them to lose export markets.

This concern has not changed in the past five years. Many consumers, particularly in Europe and Asia, are apprehensive about eating genetically modified food. Six European countries have now invoked national bans on the cultivation of a GM maize variety produced by Monsanto, despite the EU's approval of the crop (see Bridges Weekly, 22 April 2009,  Opponents cite this as a principal reason for prohibiting the introduction of GM wheat.

But GM proponents say this is a challenge worth pursuing. "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?" Robert Henry, director of the Center for Plant Conservation Genetics, told Reuters. "They really need to be convinced there's some benefit for the environment from a point of view of their own health."

Proponents hope to build this support by highlighting the crop's unique characteristics. According to their statement, GM wheat would offer increased insect and disease resistance and improved tolerance of extreme weather, both of which contribute to higher crop yields. The crop could also be designed for consumption by people with wheat intolerance.

But critics argue that GM wheat offers no agronomic improvement other than easier application of pesticides, according to their statement. Additionally, they suggest that "there is no evidence to substantiate the claim that GE [genetically engineered] crop varieties increase yields."

The GM wheat debate is complicated by the ease with which seeds move through the environment.  When wheat seeds are carried by the wind, they can cross-pollinate with other seeds. "If [genetically engineered] wheat is released commercially, contamination would be inevitable and markets would view all wheat produced from these areas as GE unless proven to be non-GE," the opponent groups stated. Some farmers would unwittingly become subject to gene patent restrictions and labelling requirements.

"Once you introduce it, it's over and it's over and it's over and it all becomes GMO just like we now have in canola," Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser told the Canadian Press. Monsanto sued Schmeiser in 1998 for using the company's genetically modified seeds without a license. Schmeiser claimed that the seeds could have blown over from a neighbouring field.

Even if proponents build the necessary political support for GM wheat research, the new crop would not be introduced for some time. Supporters estimate that it could take six to eight years for new biotech wheat crops to be ready for commercial introduction.

ICTSD reporting; "GMO wheat acceptance hinges on public benefit," REUTERS, 7 June 2009; "Debate on growing GM wheat rises again, but experts say issues are the same," THE CANADIAN PRESS, 6 June 2009.

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