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WestBred Sale Could Change Wheat Industry

Fri, 09/25/2009 - 6:15am

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — A month after giant agricultural company Monsanto bought Montana-based WestBred for $45 million, little had changed around Westbred's Four Corners research center.

On a recent morning, researchers in white coats were testing the quality of Westbred's wheat varieties.

In a field west of the labs and offices, different varieties of wheat grew in blocks that were either withered or thriving, depending on how the grain had been bred to withstand herbicides and disease.

And in a nearby warehouse, ultraviolet lights blasted seeds to accelerate growth — allowing the company to shorten how long it takes to go through a generation and thus giving it even more varieties to market to farmers.

Since 1976, the company has been mixing and matching strains of wheat to enhance those aspects of the grain that farmers like — high protein and high yields, for example — and shed aspects they don't, such as vulnerability to cold weather or disease.

And Westbred has been successful at making products wheat farmers want. By the time Monsanto Co. finalized its acquisition of the company July 14, WestBred wheat was sprouting on 6 million to 8 million acres of farmland.

Dan Biggerstaff, WestBred's vice president of research before Monsanto purchased the company, says it was how WestBred did business that made it attractive to St. Louis-based Monsanto. The purchase represented the ag giant's re-entry into the wheat seed market.

"Monsanto said, We want the best. We want them,'" Biggerstaff said.

But Biggerstaff, now a wheat industry adviser for WestBred's previous owner, Barkley Ag Enterprises, said the purchase will change the company and the wheat industry.

While WestBred has focused its energy on crossbreeding wheat with wheat to develop heartier and healthier varieties, Monsanto will likely pursue developing "transgenic" wheat, or "genetically modified" varieties, although Biggerstaff avoids that term because he says it is "instantly pejorative."

Transgenic plants are engineered by scientists who introduce genes from other species to make them resistant to heat or cold, diseases or chemicals.

"It's pretty clear to me that that is their intent," Biggerstaff said.

If the company finds a way to make transgenic wheat economical, it would be the first such wheat available on the market, joining the genetically engineered corn and soy that Monsanto already sells.

That's exciting for Biggerstaff. Wheat has become less attractive to farmers next to other crops that have transgenic varieties, he said.

Kansas, for example, used to be wheat country and still grows the most wheat of any state in the country. But last year, for the first time ever, farmers planted more acres of corn than wheat.

"Wheat's been losing territory," he said. "(Corn) allowed farmers to make a little more money per acre."

That's in part because Monsanto and other companies have been able to genetically engineer corn to make growing it easier. For example, the company has been able to create a type of corn that doesn't die when Roundup is sprayed on it. That means farmers can spray for weeds with Roundup — which, not coincidentally, is also made by Monsanto — and not worry about it killing their corn.

Biggerstaff said he doubts Monsanto will try to develop Roundup-ready wheat right away.

"I think what you're going got see — the emphasis, the push — will be in water management, drought tolerance, a plant that can tolerate a little more heat," he said.

Scientists could also craft breeds of wheat that suck less nitrogen out of the soil but are still high in protein, the nutrient that determines the quality of wheat.

It wouldn't be the first time the private sector has studied engineered wheat. While publicly funded researchers have worked on the technology consistently for decades, the private sector has also poured millions into figuring out how to craft a more efficient wheat seed.

One of the most recent efforts began in 1997, when Monsanto set out to develop Roundup-ready wheat. The company was spending about $5 million on the project every year by the time it abandoned it in 2004.

Several aspects of wheat make it a trickier crop to engineer than corn, soy and cotton.

For one, it is not as valuable a crop as the others. "The issue ... of whether a costly genetic approach to wheat can be justified or not," an analysis by the Virginia Agriculture Extension Office found, is "yet to be addressed."

Also, wheat has a more complex genetic structure than other crops, which makes fiddling with its DNA harder.

But what sunk the most recent push for transgenic wheat was not the cost, but farmers' fears as to whether they could their wheat once the crop became genetically engineered.

In Europe, transgenic food is dubbed "Frankenfood" by critics and the European Union is slow to approve transgenic crops for importation. Although the United States is arguing in international court that those rules break trade agreements, for now, wheat farmers could stand to lose access to lucrative overseas markets were they to plug engineered wheat into their soil.

The Europeans are so stringent in their regulation of genetically engineered food that entire shipments of grain are turned away if traces of unapproved varieties are detected.

That has led many farmers to fear that even if they choose not to grow transgenic wheat, kernels blown into their land from a neighboring farm could lead unimproved species to show up in their harvests, in turn leading to shipments being turned away in many harbors.

"As a result of dialogue with wheat industry leaders, we recognize the business opportunities with wheat are less attractive relative to Monsanto's other commercial priorities," a Monsanto executive said in 2004 when the company announced it was abandoning its pursuit of transgenic wheat.

At that time, news reports indicated the Roundup-ready wheat varieties Monsanto was developing stood to improve wheat yields by between 5 and 15 percent. Still, the wheat industry feared the loss of overseas markets could obliterate any profit gained by the more bountiful crops.

Those fears have eased since then, with wheat industry groups across the country lauding Monsanto's purchase of WestBred.

But fears persist.

A study of the market for transgenic wheat by Iowa State University's Robert Wisner found exports of some types of wheat could be cut in half by transgenic wheat.

However, the world has been coming around to transgenic food varieties as food prices have soared.

"I think it's pretty clear that prices and supply concerns have people thinking a little bit differently today," Steve Mercer of U.S. Wheat Associates told the New York Times in 2008. At that time, his group, which had been reticent of transgenic wheat, was trying to find a company like Monsanto to resume the research.

In July, he and many others got their wish.

Whatever comes out of Monsanto's laboratories will profoundly affect Montana.

This year, wheat was grown on about 6 million acres of farmland statewide, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service. The next-most-plentiful crop, hay, is grown on about a third of that land.

Not that it will all happen tomorrow. Biggerstaff said he doesn't expect to see Monsanto put genetically engineered wheat on the market in less than eight years. Dale Clark, who works for Monsanto in the Four Corners research center, said there won't be any transgenic wheat until 2023.

"They want to make sure they get it right," Clark said.

Biggerstaff admits Monsanto is a bad word in many American households.

"They've got a bull's eye painted right in the middle of their forehead," he said.

In Montana, that bull's eye got a little bigger during the 2009 legislative session, when it was learned that the company had treated members of the Senate Agriculture, Livestock, and Irrigation Committee to a swank dinner in Helena. Shortly after that, the panel killed a bill that Monsanto had opposed.

Some of those people who flatly oppose the idea of genetically engineered food also argue that it has not been studied enough to allow it on grocery store shelves. They often cite a case in which researchers took a protein from Brazil nuts and plugged it into soybeans. People allergic to nuts were also allergic to the new soybeans. The story is cited to show how fiddling with genetics can have serious consequences.

But Biggerstaff counters that the modified soybean never hit the market, because the company that created it pulled it when tests showed it triggered those allergic reactions.

He maintains opponents have just as much an economic incentive to resist engineered plants as the companies creating transgenic plants do to promote them n namely, they want to sell organic food.

The bottom line, he said is that "most scientists consider the risk (of transgenic food) negligible. There's no such thing as a risk-free food. You think a field of wheat doesn't mutate?"

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