United States wheat industry entering world of genetic engineering
When speaking of genetically engineered traits in wheat, Keith Kennedy of the Wyoming Wheat Marketing Commission says he doubts Roundup Ready technology will be the first trait introduced.
“It’s possible that it could be later on, but at this point I would be somewhat surprised if that were the first trait introduced,” says Kennedy, adding that other areas of wheat breeding are changing dramatically.
“The largest private wheat breeder in Europe is making inroads in and is attempting to enter the U.S. market,” says Kennedy. “Within the last week they hired a long-time wheat breeder from Oregon State University, and their new headquarters will be in Fort Collins, Colo.”
Apart from glyphosate-resistant technology, Kennedy says there are a lot of other traits in existence, from the conceptual stage through field trials.
“Australia has been actively working on stress tolerance, which is drought tolerance as well as reduced nutrient usage,” explains Kennedy.
He says there’s a fair amount of work and discussion between land grant institutions with public breeding programs and private companies on how the traits could be introduced, as the private companies are seeking germplasm.
“As a group of wheat commissions we’ve made it known to the land grants that we’d like to be involved in these discussions because the commissions and growers have funded a lot of the research, and it seems reasonable for the land grants to involve them in the selling of the germplasm,” he notes.
“There’s a lot of concern from wheat farmers that if the germplasm is sold, they’d end up paying royalties to the private company,” continues Kennedy. “In purchasing the public varieties, even if there are royalties they go back into research to come up with new varieties. They’ve seen what happened to soybeans, where they used to be a public breeding program.”
Kennedy says the current focus of selection is for a combination of a good yield with good quality. “Breeders tell us it’s not terribly difficult to select for a good yield, but it’s difficult to get a good yield with above average to excellent end user quality for millers,” he says.
One thing technology has already changed in breeding wheat is the rate at which changes can be realized through gene markers.
“Using markers can speed up the process even for traditional varieties and using the tools shortens the time frame. Five or six years ago we’d look at close to 10 years from the time a variety started entering trials to when it would be released to the public. That’s down around seven years now, and there’s a reasonable probability we could see that shortened to even five years.”
Kennedy says one concern in the back of every wheat producer’s mind is UG 99 – a variety of rust that originated in Uganda in 1999 and has spread to the Middle East. He says there’s some concern it could spread to Pakistan this year.
“Before the 1950s in the U.S. we’d have rust events, and severe losses once in 20 years. The last large yield loss due to rust was in the mid-1950s, and the varieties released since then have been resistant to the rust we had here. We’re now faced with a new one with only a couple of hard red winter varieties that show any resistance right now, and they’re all inferior in yield and quality,” says Kennedy. USDA has had experimental lines in Africa since 2000, and Kennedy says breeders are all looking at ways to get that resistance bred in.
“Egypt released a variety last fall for seed in Afghanistan, and hopefully they’ll have enough of the resistant variety to plant in that area of the world for the next couple of years. If it’s not already there, that’s where it will appear next.”
He adds, “Rust travels on wind currents and we will get it eventually. It’s roughly comparable to foot and mouth disease in the livestock industry, as far as how severe it could be.”
Regarding the challenges other genetically engineered crops have faced, and are facing, Kennedy says the wheat industry would, naturally, like to avoid the court cases and injunctions.
“The wheat industry has drawn on the model the sugarbeet industry used during adoption, where they worked with folks throughout the supply chain,” he says. “The sugar industry had a biotech committee that worked with refiners, processors and end users of sugar. We’re in the early phases of that in the wheat supply chain.”
“We know we need to discuss this with the public and educate people as to the reasons certain traits are developed,” he adds. “We’re thinking more along the lines of the environmental benefits of selection through drought tolerance or requiring the use of less fertilizer, as well as food safety.”