Food Policy Friday: United States, Australia, and Canada Announce Joint Efforts to Develop Genetically Modified Wheat

WheatWe’ve talked a lot about genetically modified crops here at Eat. Drink. Betterthe ongoing battle in the EU over Monsanto’s MON-810 maize, Obama’s refusal to halt genetic engineering in the US sugar-beet industry, and the politics behind it all.

But one frankenfood we haven’t discussed is wheat. Why? Well, mainly because it doesn’t exist.Β  There simply aren’t any commercially-available strains of genetically modified wheat available.

The United States, Canada, and Australia want to change that.Β  In an unprecedented joint statement released yesterday, top wheat organizations from the three countries announced that they intend to “work toward the goal of synchronized commercialization of biotech traits in our wheat crops…we believe it is in all of our best interests to introduce biotech wheat varieties in a coordinated fashion.”

This announcement comes at the same time as the USDA’s prediction that US wheat production will be down by 20% in the current 2009/2010 growing season.Β  Globally, the world wheat harvest is set to be 4% lower than last year.

In the joint statement — available in its entirety here — the wheat industry organizations say,

“In general, wheat yields are on a very slow growth trend in comparison with competing crops, and the longer it takes to increase the growth rate the bigger will be the hole from which the industry must climb.”

But what the statement fails to explain is this: last year’s global wheat yield was the most massive on record, and despite the 4% drop, the current growing year is still set to be the second-largest ever.Β  Can we really call that a “hole”? Even when we shift the focus away from world-wide numbers and down to just the countries at hand, the claim of a “hole” still doesn’t hold up. Canadian wheat production estimates a nearly 4% rise in output, while Australian wheat production is expected to drop just shy of 1%.

Still, industry leaders argue that wheat does not have a chance of keeping up with other grain crops unless a genetically-engineered strain of wheat is developed. The statement continues,

“Wheat production is under pressure from competing crops which, through the application of biotechnology, have achieved higher productivity, reduced input use, and other benefits not available in wheat.Β  As a result, the historic area of wheat production has declined in many areas and economics are driving producers away from wheat and into other crops if they have alternatives…we believe that by developing higher yielding better quality wheat varieties we can better supply the world with wheat food products.”

But do genetically modified crops really result in increased yields? In 2008, the Center for Food Safety released an impressive, lengthy study of genetically modified crops. In the forty-six page report, the researchers state,

“Genetic engineering has been at best neutral with respect to yield. This is consistent with the fact that genetic engineering has not increased the yield potential of any commercialized GM crop …None of the GM crops on the market are modified for increased yield potential.”

Despite such facts, the United States, Canadian, and Australian wheat industry leaders argue in their statement that not only will biotechnology increase yield, it will produce higher quality food for the global population.

“One important tool to help feed the world into the future is biotechnology.Β  Basic agronomic
improvements to wheat like strengthening disease and insect resistance, enhancing wheat’s use of soil nutrients and water, increasing its tolerance to weather extremes like drought and frost, are all possible with biotechnology.Β  Another critical area for biotechnology is to improve the nutritional aspects of wheat to facilitate healthier living for people all over the world.”

The claim that genetically engineered crops are nutritionally superior. is simply wrong; no commercially-available bio-tech crop has been genetically modified with improved nutrition in mind. The truth is, most genetically modified crops are used to feed livestock, not to provide food to poverty-stricken people. In fact, when it comes to poverty, Friends for the Earth International reports that genetically modified crops have actually hurt the world food crisis.

“There is no evidence that GM crops have made any specific contribution. GM crops have not performed better than existing conventional crops (e.g. they have not increased yields…) so it cannot be claimed that poor farmers and communities have received sustained indirect benefits, such as increased incomes.

Furthermore, the reliance of the GM industry on patents for their crops means seeds are expensive and farmers are unable to save seed for the following year. This means GM crops are inherently unsuitable for poor, small-scale farmers. …Rather than contributing…it is more likely that the corporate-led, industrial farming model promoted by GM crops is in fact undermining.”

In the face of these facts, the three nations maintain that “biotechnology is a proven technique” and are determined to commercialize the wheat industry. There is not yet any word on how or when the countries plan to begin the biotech research.

Image via Jaako on Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

4 thoughts on “Food Policy Friday: United States, Australia, and Canada Announce Joint Efforts to Develop Genetically Modified Wheat”

  1. “The claim that genetically engineered crops are nutritionally superior. is simply wrong; no bio-tech crop has been genetically modified with improved nutrition in mind.”

    This is not true at all. Besides the well known (and often misunderstood) Golden Rice, and the lesser-known Super Cassava, there are indeed MANY instances in which genetic engineering has been used to enhance the nutritional value of a crop. There are tomatoes biofortified with anthocyanin antioxidants, and carrots and green leaf lettuce with enhanced levels of calcium. Not only did the purple tomatoes prevent cancer in cancer-prone rats, the calcium-biofortified carrots have been shown to increase absorption of calcium.

    None of these, however, have yet been commercialized, so there has been no impact yet.

    Also, genetic engineering is not “inherently unsuitable” for poor people in developing countries. Golden Rice will be available for small farmers completely free, and they can save the seed and replant as usual. When Super Cassava is released, not only will the cassava cultivars be released, but even the genetic constructs used to make them will be given to those countries that want them, so they can make their own.

  2. Don’t be cavalier about the wheat supply. Anyone who has been looking at the long term trends sees that wheat is falling behind seriously. No one should draw conclusions either way from a year or even 5 years of data. Look at the trends.

    We are going to need to feed 50% more people (9 billion) by 2050 and for there to be any hope of population leveling off, lifestyles in the third world are going to have to improve (which means more demand for food). If we don’t improve the productivity of the biggest human food crops in the world (rice and wheat) people will starve. It won’t be the rich people that write and read this blog, it will be the poor in the parts of the world that will also see the most issues from climate change.
    GMO wheat isn’t the total answer to this, but it is part of it. GMO crops have been grown for more than 12 years on between 1 and 2 billion acres without any human health issue or environmental issue. Is there a statue of limitations on saying “the sky is falling?”

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