Monsanto Restarts Research On Genetically Engineered Wheat

Wheat in Kansas, Photo by David F. Warren, USDA

Wheat in Kansas, Photo by David F. Warren, USDA

While Monsanto shelved its research on genetically modified wheat in 2004 as a result of broad opposition from U.S. consumers and growers, the company is now ready to take out it chemistry set, dust it off and begin tinkering with the wheat genome.  Pointing to the droughts in Eastern Europe that “decimated wheat crop,” Monsanto claims that such an environmental disaster “only underscores the need for improvements in wheat.”

The more likely explanation is that the Russian fires that wreaked havoc on the world’s wheat production provided a platform for Monsanto to openly discuss its revival plans for wheat modification.  Genetically modifying wheat is, as usual, a business decision for the big M. It’s the last frontier that has the world as its customers which the company has yet to have modified and conquered.  And Monsanto is trying to catch up with its seed rivals Syngenta, BASF and others which are also working on developing genetically modified wheat and they have in fact made inroads in Australia.  In 2006, for example, BASF invested $28 million for GE wheat research in Australia and conducted its first field trials in 2007. Furthermore, the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the country’s national science agency, has been in alliance with Syngenta, the world’s third largest seed company, to research GE wheat since the early 2000.  Not to be outdone, Monsanto restarted its “wheat research [in 2009], paying $45 million for the WestBred LLC seed germplasm company.”  Furthermore, in August 2010, Monsanto bought a 20% stake in Intergrain, one of Australia’s largest wheat breeding companies.

However enticing the increased profit opportunity in the U.S. wheat market may be for Monsanto, and despite the dramatic failure of Russian wheat harvest this year, the renewed investment in GM wheat research still seems like a failed proposition to farmers and consumers.  Monsanto scientists have yet to engineer a single viable drought-resistant crop, despite years of hyped marketing.  More importantly, Monsanto’s renewed effort to revive its GM wheat research fails to address one of the biggest reasons why GM wheat research was abandoned in 2004.

Over a half of all wheat produced in the United States goes to exports and many wheat farmers in 2004 feared that GM wheat will be universally rejected by markets in Europe and Asia.  That’s not likely to change today.  Even as we recently watched the European regulatory agencies soften their restrictions on biotech animal feed trade, predominantly consisting of corn and soybeans, that has not been the case with food crops.  The fears of biotech contamination in crops for human consumption are still pitch-high — for the right reasons.  Any new GE wheat trials will bring back the possibility of export market collapse, similar to collapses in corn and rice exports due to contamination that occurred back in early 2000s.

For more reading go to Greenpeace Report: Spliced Bread, The Threat of GE Wheat In Australia