E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Wheat at forefront of biotech battle

(Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Associated Press, 02/25/04: WICHITA, Kan. -- More than 10,000 years after nomadic hunters first harvested stands of wild wheat, researchers are working on genetically engineering mankind's oldest crop in what may become the last stand in the battle over biotech foods. With a genome five times the size of the human genome, wheat is so complex that it is one of the last major crops to undergo genetic manipulation. The food staple has become the center of the fight over genetically modified organisms.

Genetically modified wheat won't be released to farmers until it is approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Agriculture Department.

``For the non-GM people this is their last fight on a major crop,'' said Harold Trick, a wheat researcher and assistant professor at Kansas State University. ``If this fails, it will be hard for them to come back from that.''

Consumers in Europe and parts of Asia worry that genetically modified foods are unsafe and could harm the environment.

The battle lines on biotech wheat are being drawn in North Dakota, where opponents are proposing a ballot measure that would give the state agriculture commissioner power to decide whether farmers may plant the crop. What worries growers most is whether they will be able export genetically modified wheat.

More than half of the spring wheat grown in the United States is exported, and about 47 percent of those exports are now going to countries that have said they won't accept genetically modified wheat, according to the Center for Agricultural Policy and Trade Studies at North Dakota State University. But the furor over transgenic wheat has yet to flare up in Kansas, the nation's biggest wheat grower.

Kansas grows winter wheat varieties. The introduction of biotech wheat will begin with spring wheat -- which is grown primarily in North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota.

St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. says it is developing a genetically modified spring wheat that, within six years, would enable farmers to spray weed killer without killing the wheat.

Such a trait is of far less interest to winter wheat growers, who plant their crops in the fall and harvest them in early summer before most weeds have a chance to take hold, said David Frey, administrator of the Kansas Wheat Commission.

The Kansas Wheat Commission -- a grower-funded advocacy group whose mission is global wheat marketing -- is funding much of the genetic research at Kansas State University.

The group helped buy a gene sequencer for university researchers, and this year budgeted $96,737 for transgenic wheat research. The work may one day help develop transgenic varieties resistant to drought and disease.

Two months ago, Kansas State University researchers cloned a leaf rust resistance gene, encouraging for wheat growers in a state where $100 million was lost last year to leaf or stem rust disease.

Bikram Gill, one of the researchers, said the work so far hasn't been extended to wheat breeding because of the uncertainy about genetically modified wheat.

But researchers hope the knowledge they gain through such research can also be applied in the field for developing new varieties through natural breeding processes, Trick said.

For example, their success in cloning the rust-resistant gene has now given them a ``genetic tag'' to identify plants naturally resistant to rust. Perhaps the most ambitious project now under way is an international effort by scientists to map the wheat genome. Researchers say the wheat genome is likely to be the largest genome ever sequenced.

A group of international scientists plan to get together this summer to lay out the plan for a wheat genome sequencing project targeted for completion in 2010.