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Biotech Wheat

Nature Biotechnology has an article well worth checking out (if you have journal access anyway) about the story of biotech wheat. No genetically engineered wheat is commercially grown today, nor has it been in the past. ┬áMonsanto came close to releasing an herbicide tolerant variety several years ago, but didn’t because of fear that American farmers would lose valuable markets for our wheat exports. I speculated that genetically engineered wheat runs into more consumer opposition because we eat more wheat in recognizable forms (mostly bread and pasta) than we do crops like corn, soybeans, and canola.

Anyway, two new developments seem to have prompted this article. First, Monsanto and Syngenta have been sending signs that they’re both interested in restarting their programs to develop new wheat traits using genetic engineering. Views about among wheat farmers have begun to shift, partly as they see the acreage devoted to wheat shrinking as more and more land is converted to corn production, but also because of the second development.

Wheat growers in the US, Canada, and Australia have banded together to push for a simultaneous adoption of future genetically engineered wheat traits. That’s significant, because those three countries are some of the biggest wheat exporting nations in the world.* US farmers were worried that if genetically engineered wheat was introduced in America, rich wheat importing countries (basically Japan and the EU) would stop buying US wheat and wheat prices would fall in the US. But if more countries switch at the same time, it’s less likely any of them will get cut off.

It’s the same logic as a union. If a big company decides to fire me without cause, there isn’t much I can do about it, there are plenty of other people they can hire to replace me (or pay a little more to many of their current employees to work overtime and cover my job). But they can’t replace all their employees at once, so a union has more bargaining power than individual employees. Wheat farmers in Australia, Canada, and the United States are banding together to increase their freedom to adopt new technologies with less fear of retaliation from countries that are less food self-sufficient. Although I’ll admit it does violate the violate the cliche about the customer always being right. But then again we already knew it wasn’t.

h/t to Amy for pointing out the great article in Nature Biotechnology, and Mr_Subjunctive to the final link.

*India and China are actually the two biggest producers of wheat, but their production is consumed domestically, which means that #1 they’ve got even more interest in increasing yield since for them its a question of feeding their people, not making more or less money on the world market #2 they don’t have to worry about they acceptance of their crops in other countries. The article I linked to above suggests China is much closer to the commercial production of a range of genetically engineered traits in wheat than anything in the research pipelines of western biotech companies, which after all are only just restarting after turned completely off for years.

2 Comments

  1. Amy says:

    thanks for the hat tip!
    It’s nice to see the spotlight on Peggy and Bob. I hadn’t thought about thioredoxin in three years and I felt a little ashamed!

  2. James says:

    Thanks for tweeting it! I always get a kick out of seeing PIs I actually know mentioned in print.

    The image of Bob as a thioredoxin rock star in China is even more awesome as displaced reading First Fruit when the author was talking with Mike Freeling about whether or not to take a job at Calgene as the most awesome one yet.

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