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11 Nov 2009
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Whatever Happened to GM Wheat?

- Jeffrey L Fox, Nature Biotechnology 27, 974 - 976 (2009)

Agribusiness is taking another run at transgenic wheat after shelving its programs five years ago because of concerns from farmers, trade organizations and even state governments about market acceptance. Will there be a market this time? Jeffrey Fox investigates

With its mid-July acquisition of WestBred, of Butte, Montana, St. Louis-based Monsanto jumped back into the genetically modified (GM) wheat business, anticipating commercial wheat crops within a decade. A few days later, Bayer CropScience of Monheim, Germany, announced a GM-wheat development alliance with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Clayton South, Victoria, Australia, promising to bring “solutions” to wheat growers as early as 2015. And some expect the Chinese to begin planting GM wheat on a commercial scale perhaps sooner than any of their Western counterparts.

Such developments mark a turnabout from five years ago when Monsanto dropped development of its Roundup-Ready (RR) winter wheat like a hot potato. Poised for regulatory approval and with commercial sales of its GM-wheat seeds imminent, the company found itself faced with a fractious group of wheat growers and what seemed an intransigent marketplace. The main resistance came not from consumers, but from wheat growers in the US and Canada, whose concerns about losing lucrative export markets overwhelmed a then-minority contingent seeking access to herbicide-tolerant wheat.
But although resistance to GM wheat may be waning, it has not yet dissipated, particularly in key Asian markets for the US crop. Surveys show that three-quarters of US wheat growers support GM wheat1, yet resistance to GM wheat still persists among Canadian wheat farmers2. And opposition from consumer groups remains steadfast. In June, a US, Canadian and Australian coalition released a joint statement that deems such crops “a calamity”3.

Wheat is a major global crop that, according to some estimates, accounts for as much as one-fourth of all cultivated land. Even so, US wheat production has followed a consistent downward trend for the past 30 years, according to Daren Coppock, who heads The National Association of Wheat Growers in Washington, DC. That trend has contributed to recent production shortfalls.

“The US produces from 1.3 to 2 billion bushels per year, half of which is exported,” Coppock says. Although prices range widely and depend on grade, type and quality of wheat, a conservative average price of $5 per bushel puts the annual US wheat crop as being worth $10 billion and bringing in as much as $5 billion through international trade. “China is the biggest producer globally, but it consumes all it produces,” he adds.
India is next in line, and it, too, consumes virtually all the wheat it produces, according to Hans-Joachim Braun, director of the Global Wheat Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), headquartered in Texcoco, Mexico. The US is next on this list, followed by Canada, Australia and Argentina, all of which, like the US, both export and consume wheat.
Wheat and corn are locked in competition as the chief field crops worldwide, with corn in the lead and lately gaining ground both literally and figuratively. Although about equal acres are planted in corn and wheat worldwide, annual global production of corn is about 750 million tons, roughly 100 million tons more than wheat, according to Braun. Lately, growers are planting corn in regions, including parts of Kansas and North Dakota, that once were devoted to wheat. Such inroads worry wheat producers, some of whom say that conventional breeding efforts for wheat simply are not keeping pace with corn. In addition, wheat growers struggle against productivity losses in regions such as the northern plains, where rain is scarce and irrigation costly.

A similar imbalance shows up in both private and public investments in research for the two crops, Braun says. “Companies allocate huge sums for maize [corn], whereas no one comes close with wheat.” One consequence is that corn yields are rising faster than those for wheat. “We need annual increases of about 1.6% to produce enough wheat to keep up with food demand, but it’s not increasing very much,” he says. Meanwhile, corn continues to more than meet that yield-increase threshold, which helps it keep pace with rising demand for its use as feed for food animals and recently as a fuel feedstock, an end use for which wheat is unsuited.

“When Monsanto pulled back from developing RR wheat, it had a negative effect,” says Peggy Lemaux of the University of California, Berkeley, referring to both private and public wheat research programs. Although research on wheat continues in the public sector, much of its focus is on marker-assisted breeding and the development of molecular tools that further that approach, she says. “People are reluctant to pursue GM wheat [because] they want the community to be receptive.”
The federal government began supporting GM-wheat research about 15 years ago, and “wheat growers encouraged us to advance this technology,” says Kay Simmons of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Beltsville, Maryland. Overall, the department invests about $40 million annually in such research, supporting about 125 programs both at ARS sites and at universities, mainly in western and midwestern states. Some research focuses on improving grain quality, other projects look at disease and drought resistance, and still others at tissue-specific gene expression. A few projects have led to field-trial applications, including from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Montana State University in Bozeman and the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. USDA also fosters a US-China collaborative project on wheat, centered at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing, with an emphasis on conventional and marker-assisted breeding, she says.
Despite that volume of activity, “taking a trait through development and the federal deregulatory program costs about $30 million,” says agronomist William Wilson of North Dakota State University in Fargo. Others estimate the cost of full commercial development of a GM crop line to be as high as $100 million. Coming up with such investments is “too difficult for a land-grant college to swallow,” says Wilson. Although activities continue, US field trials for transgenic wheat “peaked in 2000, and declined to about nil in 2009,” he says. It remains “difficult for universities to get involved doing GM-wheat research,” adds Jim Peterson, an expert in wheat breeding at Oregon State University (OSU) in Corvallis. “It’s okay to do marker discovery, but the regulatory hurdles [doing GM research] means you need private partners.”
Plant scientist Jorge Dubcovsky at the University of California, Davis, agrees, noting that he and his collaborators developed and continue to evaluate a series of transgenic wheat (and barley) lines. “In the public sector, I am aware of transgenics for research only,” he says. “We are not attempting to commercialize any of these lines since we do not have the resources to go through the regulatory process.”

At the international level, Monsanto last March established the Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program with a $10 million grant that supports young scholars working on wheat and rice. “Wheat research is underfunded globally, particularly in developing countries,” says Ted Crosbie, vice president of global plant breeding at Monsanto. This “investment in people,” now supporting its first 12 scholars, will train scientists for careers “in public sector research,” and each scholar is to work as part of a twosome, with one partner from an industrialized country and the other from a developing country, he says. The program is being administered through College Station-based Texas AgriLife Research, part of Texas A&M University, for the next five years. This scholarship program was “put together” before Monsanto decided to get back into the “wheat business,” he says.
Shifting views

After a pause for part of the decade, corporate programs to develop GM wheat are being reactivated. At the time Monsanto pulled its RR wheat, Basel-based Syngenta was also working on plans to release a fusarium-resistant GM-wheat variety. “Private companies put wheat on the shelf about five years ago, and became extremely reluctant to invest in it, but that changed in the past two years,” says Peterson of OSU. “Prices are changing, and some of the opposition to GM wheat has softened. The sense I get is that a number of companies are reevaluating, and their discussions with grower groups are creating a more positive atmosphere. And these [corporate] players are not the ’small guys’, but the big ag-chemical guys.”

“The US may be beaten by another country, and we remain behind because of the lapse when Monsanto pulled out in 2004,” says Michael Wach of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, DC, referring to GM-wheat development efforts weeks before Monsanto’s announcement last July. “We don’t see anyone poised, but the USDA has researchers outside the commercial world.” Recently, however, there is a “big shift” among wheat growers, with a “majority interested in adopting biotechnology–  We applaud that development,” he says.

In many ways, using biotech to develop commercial wheat varieties seems a “no brainer-it’s an extension of developments for soybeans and corn,” says Lochiel Edwards, a wheat producer from Big Sandy, Montana, and a former president of the Montana Grain Growers Association. Earlier this decade, however, growers were wary because of consumer opposition to GM wheat and the big difficulties they would face in trying to segregate GM grain from other non-GM varieties. More importantly, they were outright worried about the likelihood of losing a big share in highly valued wheat export markets, particularly to Europe and Japan, where opponents of the technology were vocal and politically entrenched.

Those fears led to a split among growers as well as between several key organizations that represent them on trade or on assorted agricultural issues, according to Edwards. The National Association of Wheat Growers, for instance, was sympathetic to plans for commercializing GM wheat-specifically, Monsanto’s RR spring wheat-because it promised growers conveniences in applying herbicides. In contrast, the US Wheat Associates (USWA) of Arlington, Virginia, focused more narrowly on the potential damage that GM wheat could wreak on wheat as an export commodity in world markets. “There was a dichotomy of goals,” Edwards says. Moreover, the Canadian Wheat Board shared and amplified those export qualms, and threatened to stand pat on keeping Canadian wheat GM-free, thus intensifying anxieties within USWA that US growers could lose out to Canadian growers selling non-GM wheat at a premium to customers in Europe and Japan.

The issue was further complicated because the variety of RR winter wheat that Monsanto then was offering was to be grown mainly in Montana and North Dakota, meaning only a fraction of US wheat growers would benefit from planting it, whereas a larger contingent could be hurt if US export wheat prices were driven down across the board. Furthermore, those growers following no-till practices faced additional complications if they were to grow herbicide-resistant wheat one season but then face it as a weed during subsequent plantings of other crops.

During the past several years, however, much that drove these dynamics during 2003 and 2004 has changed, according to Peterson at OSU as well as Edwards and other wheat growers. “The wheat industry has come full circle– .and unified its support for going forward with a biotech strategy,” says Allan Skogen, a North Dakota wheat grower, who also chairs Growers for Biotechnology, based in Valley City, North Dakota. “There is no doubt that we can increase production if given these biotech tools.” The key focus for growers is “drought tolerance,” he adds. “Water is the issue, and the limiting factor for wheat.” Disease resistance is also important, even if a somewhat lower priority. None of the first-generation of commercial GM-wheat strains is likely to address these traits.

Another critical element that upset GM-wheat dynamics five years ago was set aside forcibly in mid-May, when nine top US, Canadian and Australian wheat organizations issued a policy statement about introducing GM wheat. In it, they promise “to work toward the goal of synchronized commercialization of biotech traits in our wheat crops” while noting that it “is in all of our best interests to introduce biotech wheat varieties in a coordinated fashion to minimize market disruptions and shorten the period of adjustment.” Although this tripartite statement is viewed with considerable relief by US wheat growers, Edwards says, “the US wheat leadership won’t require simultaneous release with Canada; they’re ready to go without them [Canadian growers].”
International hotspots

Wheat is a global product, and GM wheat is being developed outside US or Canadian and Australian borders. “I was welcomed like a rock star in Zhengzhou, which is the Chinese ‘Kansas’ for wheat production,” says plant researcher Robert Buchanan of the University of California, Berkeley, where he is an executive dean. A group of 40 researchers at Henan Agricultural University, led by Jun Yin and Yong-Chun Li, are developing GM wheat that entails adding antisense inserts to the thioredoxin gene, advancing work on a gene that Buchanan began studying about 15 years ago, he says. The goal is to block the thioredoxin gene as a way of slowing or avoiding premature germination of seed heads in hot weather, a step that now reduces wheat yields by about 20%. “Field trials are in their third year, and this [technology] could be commercialized in two to three years,” Buchanan says, referring to progress in China. “There are no adverse effects, and the only drawback so far is that such [GM wheat] seeds germinate more slowly in soil. It’s gratifying to see my earlier work moved forward. Jun is a hero there, and China is going ahead as fast as they can with GM wheat, and will be the richer for it.”

The Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences is also developing GM-wheat lines, including wilt-resistant lines, according to Zhonghu He, a researcher at the Academy and CIMMYT liaison officer in Beijing. Scientists there are developing wheat to be “disease and insect resistant for head scab, powdery mildew, yellow mosaic virus and insects; stress resistant for drought, salinity, sprouting and herbicide; and with quality improvement for dough strength and grain texture,” he says. “In 2008, the Chinese government funded–. [GM] wheat as the largest [program], and plans to continue for the next 15 to 20 years. At least 20 scientists at the PhD level work on GM [crops] and, in the new project, more than 60 scientists are involved. Planting and production can be achieved within the next 3 to 5 years.”

“China and India are both very interested in GM wheat,” says Braun of CIMMYT in Mexico. The Chinese have proved reluctant to license traits from Western companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta, preferring to stay away from costly entanglements involving intellectual property rights. Moreover, because wheat grown in China is exclusively for domestic markets, officials there will not be delayed by international trade concerns and, in terms of domestic consumption, are not expected to meet with or care about any local opposition to GM food products if it were to arise.

“In India, that could be a problem,” Braun continues. GM eggplant has received regulatory approval, although the government has yet to make a final decision. Furthermore, the commercial arm of Mahyco Research Center in Dawalwadi, India, namely the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company, which markets Bollgard cotton through agreements with Monsanto, also markets several varieties of conventional hybrid wheat. Elsewhere, scientists at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi are pursuing several transgenic wheat and rice projects, seeking drought- and disease-resistant cultivars.

Australia is another leader in GM-wheat efforts. An initial project of the collaboration between CSIRO and Bayer CropScience announced in July is “development of wheat lines with improved yield potential and stress tolerance, whereas another focuses on wheat lines with improved utilization of phosphorus,” according to a Bayer spokesman. “These and other research projects are expected to result in new varieties available to farmers [by] 2015.” Before that announcement, the Australian Gene Technology Regulator approved an application from CSIRO to conduct field trials on 16 GM-wheat lines with altered grain composition between July 2009 and June 2012.

In addition to CSIRO, the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, along with La Trobe University in Bundoora, Victoria, is building a center for agricultural research, and this Australian group forged an alliance with Dow AgroSciences of Indianapolis last May to develop transgenic wheat, corn and canola varieties. Well before this alliance was announced, La Trobe researchers were developing and field-testing drought-resistant, transgenic wheat varieties, says Wilson of North Dakota State University. “Although they’re ahead of others, they are probably still 8 to 10 years away from commercializing [those varieties].”

Monsanto in the lead
Only a few weeks before Monsanto announced its return to commercial development of GM wheat through its acquisition of WestBred, close observers of this sector sounded doubtful about progress on the commercial GM-wheat front. “It is vague, making it hard to know what’s going on,” said plant pathologist Bob Bowden of Kansas State University in Manhattan. “Companies are holding their cards close to the vest.” At the end of June, he described Monsanto as “schizophrenic” for announcing last March its “scholars program” supporting young people to study GM wheat and rice while ostensibly remaining out of commercial GM-wheat development. Indeed, in the run-up to its mid-July announcement, Monsanto denied R&D activity involving GM wheat, saying instead that it was maintaining a “dialog” with the wheat industry.

That dialog shifted gears with the July rollout by Monsanto of a comprehensive plan for returning to the wheat business. “We will begin with conventional and marker-assisted breeding,” says Carl Casale, Monsanto executive vice president of global strategy and operations, who spoke during a press briefing in mid-July. But the longer-term plan is to lean on GM technology to boost wheat yields with traits conferring drought and disease resistance as well as higher efficiency use of nitrogen fertilizers, Casale says. “Realistically, it could be eight to ten years before the first biotech trait is introduced.”

And this time the company is not emphasizing herbicide-tolerant transgenic spring wheat, as it did before 2004. Instead, it plans to work on “multi traits across multiple types of wheat,” and to “take genes from corn and bring them into wheat,” he says. Moreover, the company looks to collaborate with “public sources,” meaning scientists at land-grant universities. What’s more, the early focus is on crops for US farmers, not growers in Canada or elsewhere. However, he says, “we’re open to conversations with any country that wants the benefit of this technology.”
Much like Monsanto, Syngenta is easing its way back into GM-wheat development. For Syngenta, the first public move comes through its Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, which formed a partnership with CIMMYT in Mexico last August. That partnership will focus on stem rust, using marker-assisted breeding, to develop disease-resistant varieties of wheat.
Syngenta officials are less sure of when the company will resume efforts to develop transgenic varieties of wheat, says Sandro Aruffo, who heads global research and development from Basel. “We decided to pause our GM-wheat efforts several years ago,” he says. “But we will restart it when it’s appropriate — and that will depend on the ‘environment’. We don’t yet have a target country of entry- or a specific timeframe.” Recent signs of reawakened commercial interest in developing GM wheat are a “plus in many different ways, and helps to assure our customers,” he says. “We are keeping our ear to the ground to make sure that we remain competitive.”

Meanwhile, Syngenta has “very strong GM programs in other crops-soy and corn, in particular,” says his colleague Rollin Sears, a senior science and technology fellow for Syngenta in Junction City, Kansas. “Some of that will be applicable to wheat, which is the most important food crop globally, once we decide to restart that program.”

“Everyone, with the exception of those who are opposed to biotechnology, comes to the same conclusion,” says Crosbie from Monsanto. “Some wheat production problems can only be solved with biotechnology, and drought tolerance is a primary example.” GM wheat is “safe” and its commercialization will “improve the environment through more sustainable production,” he adds. “I hope the world comes to its senses.”

1. Anonymous. 75% of wheat growers approve biotech petition. National Association of Wheat Growers, Washington, DC, Feb, 26, 2009.
2. Anonymous. Farmer optimism clashes with weather fears, CWB survey, Canadian Wheat Board, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, June, 16, 2009.
3. Anonymous. Definitive global rejection of genetically engineered wheat. Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 1, 2009.

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