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GMO wheat likely 8 years away, KSU breeder says

Transgenic varieties are commonplace now for cotton and corn. But GMO commercial wheat may still be about eight years away for U.S. producers.

That’s what noted Kansas State University wheat breeder Allan Fritz said to growers when he addressed the biannual Big Country Wheat Conference in Abilene, Texas.

Fritz told the packed conference that’s because 50% of U.S.-grown wheat goes into the export market. That means pleasing some foreign customers who may not yet be receptive to the genetically modified organisms.

In fact, wheat growers have lots of customers to satisfy here and abroad on a variety of demands.

“Each baker has a different set of preferences for whatever product — bread, Asian noodles, tortillas, waxy wheat — by both domestic and international users,” Fritz said.

That’s the trick.

Key Points

• Wheat breeding must be geared to both yield and quality.

• GMO commercial wheat is still several years away in the United States.

• Many factors combined to impact the wheat industry during 2010.

Fritz said he could breed wheat for the qualities that bakers seek. But what if the wheat doesn’t yield well, or was susceptible to a wide variety of diseases? A wheat variety must first show good yield and disease resistance for producers to accept and grow it.

“So you first breed for yield and go from there with a broad genetic base,” the wheat breeder noted.

That means utilizing wheat material from around the world in a breeding program. Great advances need to be made in quality the same way they’ve been made in yield, Fritz said.

He acknowledged it personally pains him to throw out a wheat plant that he might have bred, which looked good for some time, but is wheat that is no longer toward the top.

“We have to be ruthless in eliminating things of poor quality,” Fritz assured. “In breeding, we are throwing away the trash.”

Just as weather can affect yield, Fritz said heat, drought and abiotic stress are among factors that impact quality, as well.

And while actual GMO varieties of wheat may remain a few years away, Fritz said DNA markers are available for wheat now that identify several traits as useful information in breeding for quality.

Big picture

Fritz said that in private and public wheat breeding collaborations, healthy competition among wheat breeders is good.

But keep in mind that wheat also must compete with other crops.

Corn, for example, is a hybrid system. So corn breeders can really breed for some sensational yields.

Frankly, corn and soybean lobbyists also have been more successful in farm lobbying for research dollars. Research funding at the federal level for wheat has been tiny compared with corn. And corn is enjoying a successful push for ethanol production.

But Fritz noted wheat still is a very important commodity per se, such as in making a simple loaf of bread.

Although federal support may be small for wheat, Fritz also pointed out that privately, AgriPro, WestBred (now owned by Monsanto), Limagrain (a French company) and Bayer all have increased their private investment in wheat breeding over the past 10 years.

Fritz said Limagrain is bringing some of its wheat materials to the U.S., which he noted is a good thing. In fact, he anticipates Limagrain will be the first to introduce GMO wheat in the U.S. when it does emerge.

Market factors

Kody Bessent, of the Texas Wheat Producers Board, Amarillo, said the protein quality issue certainly impacted wheat prices with the 2010 harvest. But Bessent noted other major factors included:

• lack of rail service for some grain elevators

• truck fuel for transporting wheat

• limited or no storage capacity at some elevators incapable of handling the bumper crop

• devaluation of currency in Greece and then other European nations, reducing their buying power

“The April and May 2010 Greece currency problem had a psychological impact on the European Union,” Bessent said. “It pushed the euro to its lowest level in more than four years. That made U.S. wheat noncompetitive.”

He noted the estimated 35-bushel-per-acre overall average for the 2010 Texas wheat harvest is second only to the record-yield 37 bushels in 2007.

But the wheat market improved in late summer, Bessent said. He noted Nigeria now is the largest customer of Texas and U.S. wheat, and Egypt is the second largest.

This article published in the October, 2010 edition of THE FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.