Wheat research needs boost before it’s too late

There have been recent stirrings that research into genetically modified (GM) wheat will again be started. Research was suspended mainly by Monsanto a few years ago in response to some opposition from wheat marketers and exporters. Their concern was that buyers, mainly in Europe, would stop buying Canadian and American wheat due to the hyped Euro-phobia with anything that is GM related.

Europe has become that odd aberration in the world where fear of GM products have become a political-social obsession not a science issue. The bizarre result has been that Europe uses more herbicides and pesticides of every kind on its corn, soybean and canola crops than any other place in the world. The problem with letting that Euro attitude govern GM research into wheat will see the potential of that crop languish as other GM crops forge ahead with yield increases and better agronomics. This situation is not good for Canada which is one of the leading wheat growing countries on the planet.

Due to the lack of sufficient heat units over most of the prairies, corn and soybean production will remain limited. Although slow incremental progress is being made with the heat unit issue, unless there is some way with genetic modification to make a big leap forward those crops have a restricted future outside of some favourable areas in the very south areas of the prairies.

Its a different story with canola where GM plants have made great strides in yields and crop production costs. The difference is that GM is accepted where canola is mostly marketed. Even the recalcitrant Europeans are reluctantly moving forward to accepting GM canola. They are not very credible on the matter – they buy GM canola oil but not the seed – but they are seeing the absurdity in their position.

The point is GM progress has made a world of difference to corn, soybeans and canola production. Wheat (like barley, oats, rye etc) has reached its production and agronomic limit using traditional genetic protocols. Yes increases are made but it is very slow. Compare that to corn which has gone from 75 bushels to almost 200 bushels in the last thirty years. During that same time wheat has barely increased 20%.

Researchers have indicated that with further GM progress, corn yields could be almost doubled again with less nitrogen, less water and more resistance to pests and disease. Perhaps due to the physiology of the wheat plant the phenomenal progress that corn has made is not feasible for wheat. But surely some more significant progress can be made especially in the area of drought resistance and nutrient requirements.

This remains important for prairie crop production as wheat will become an orphan with growers opting for more profitable crops like GM canola. Its also important for other parts of the world where due to climate and growing conditions wheat is the only feasible crop. Improved GM wheat varieties could increase in areas prone to drought and disease. In certain parts of the world that could mean the difference between having something to eat and starvation.

Its really a no-brainer save for the Euro-GM phobes whose backward attitude is stifling better wheat crops around the world. Perhaps plant genetics companies are sensing a changing in the attitude of European authorities as they have second thoughts about their un-scientific stance against GM plant production.

On the other hand as with GM corn, soybeans and canola which have become the dominant varieties in world trade in those commodities, perhaps by just introducing GM wheat into the system, sooner or later the Europeans will just have to accept it or go without.

That’s not a farfetched situation. Last year as grain prices skyrocketed Europeans were permitting the increased importation of GM feedstuffs for their livestock as shortages threatened their livestock industry. I expect when real food shortages begin, the Europeans will suddenly find some common sense on the issue.

Clearly GM wheat will be a big step forward for everyone and good for prairie crop producers.