Monsanto Backs Off on Roundup Ready Wheat

Leading biotechnology company says it is realigning research to focus on biotechnology in corn, cotton and oilseeds. Jacqui Fatka

Published on: May 10, 2004

Monsanto announced Monday that they will no longer be pursuing the introduction of Roundup Ready wheat in the United States as well as Canada. Instead, they will realign research and development investments to accelerate the development of new and improved traits in corn, cotton and oilseeds.

"As a result of our portfolio review and dialogue with wheat industry leaders, we recognize the business opportunities with Roundup Ready spring wheat are less attractive relative to Monsanto's other commercial priorities," says Carl Casale, executive vice president for Monsanto.

Monsanto began the technical development stage of Roundup Ready wheat in 1997. Six years of field testing by Monsanto scientists and academic researchers demonstrate that Roundup Ready wheat performs well under the difficult production environments for spring-planted wheat and offers the potential to increase yields by 5% to 15%.

"Acreage planted in the spring wheat market in the United States and Canada has declined nearly 25% since 1997, and even more in the higher cost weed control target market for this product." Casale says. "This technology adds value for only a segment of spring wheat growers, resulting in a lack of widespread wheat industry alignment, unlike the alignment we see in other crops where biotechnology is broadly applied. These factors underscore the difficulty of bringing new technologies to the wheat market at this time."

Industry driven decision

"Monsanto has been very open with us in dialogue; they’ve asked frank questions and we’ve had many candid discussions," says Bruce Hamnes, Chairman of the Wheat Export Trade Education Committee (WETEC)."This decision demonstrates that we’re taking a very thoughtful approach to commercialization, and also illustrates that the pledges and milestones Monsanto set out were sincere."

"Wheat growers are already experiencing the benefits of biotech, but in other crops such as corn, soy, and canola, which are increasingly being grown on acreage formerly devoted to wheat," according to Casale. "Growers will continue to benefit as we bring traits such as cold stress and drought tolerance to the marketplace."

Juan Lopez of Friends of the Earth International called the announcement a "worldwide victory for consumers and farmers." Biotech wheat has faced opposition from farmers, food manufacturers, environmentalists and consumers. Friends of the Earth says it is particularly concerned that growing GM wheat would increase the use of herbicides.

Casale adds that from the development standpoint it was getting to a point of gaining consumer acceptance, but the decision was based primarily on consultations with producers. Alan Lee, Chairman of U.S. Wheat Associates, says while his organization believes that biotechnology has a definite place in the future of wheat production, the market is not yet ready for the introduction of this new technology. "This deferral should reassure our customers that we’re not rushing to market prematurely, and it gives us more time to do the advance work that will be necessary for the eventual commercialization of biotechnology," Lee says.

Biotech wheat just 'on the shelf'

Casale says the company will continue to monitor the wheat industry's desire for crop improvements, via breeding and biotechnology, to determine if and when it might be practical to move forward with a biotech wheat product. "This decision allows us to defer commercial development of Roundup Ready wheat, in order to align with the potential commercialization of other biotechnology traits in wheat, estimated to be four to eight years in the future."

Mark Gage, President of the National Association of Wheat Growers, explains technology has been a central part of U.S. wheat production for many years. "Wheat production and the quality of our product have steadily improved because of technology adoption, and we view biotechnology as the next tool in the toolbox," he says. "Monsanto’s deferral does not halt biotechnology development; RoundUp Ready wheat is ‘on the shelf’, and there are other traits coming forward that will find their place in 21st Century wheat production."

Shifting resources away from Roundup Ready wheat enables Monsanto to increase its research emphasis on stress tolerance and several improved health profile vegetable oil traits. Overall, Monsanto's biotechnology research and development focuses on providing new solutions in the areas of yield improvement and stress tolerance, agronomic pest resistance traits, and food and feed improvement traits.

Monsanto will discontinue breeding and field level research of Roundup Ready wheat. North Dakota and South Dakota universities do have some research agreements with Monsanto evaluating biotech wheat, Casale explains Monsanto will honor the terms of the existing agreement.

The company will be working with regulators around the world to take appropriate next steps with regard to regulatory submissions.