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The case for biotech wheat

Blaine JacobsonIdaho wheat growers breathed a sigh of relief on July 30 when Yoshimasa Hayashi, Japanese minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, stepped to the podium in his weekly briefing and announced that Japan would immediately resume shipments of soft white wheat from Idaho and the Pacific Northwest. It was welcome news coming just as Idaho harvest was starting.

Japan and Korea suspended new tenders of Pacific Northwest soft white wheat earlier in the summer when rogue genetically engineered glyphosate-resistant wheat plants were discovered in an Oregon wheat field. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service issued an interim report that the genetically engineered finding appeared to be a single isolated incident in a single field on a single farm and emphasized that genetically engineered wheat did not pose a health hazard.

Although the tempest has passed, the larger issue of wheat’s decline in the American diet and loss of farm acres to corn and soybeans remains. In contrast to wheat, corn and soybeans both benefit from genetically engineered traits. Genetically engineered corn and soybeans were introduced in 1996, and the USDA estimates that 88 percent of corn and 94 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified.

Genetically engineered corn and soybeans are pushing wheat acres aside because these crops are more profitable for farmers. As an ingredient, genetically engineered corn is replacing wheat in American supermarkets and restaurants because it is less expensive than wheat for millers, bakers and food processors.

grains of wheat - webU.S. farmers are expected to harvest a record 174.4 million acres of corn and soybeans in 2013. Due to genetically engineered traits in corn, Idaho is becoming part of this trend. Idaho harvested 360,000 acres of corn in 2012, an all-time high. Corn is pushing into Idaho fields where, in the past, non-modififed corn would not have survived. Given its dairy industry, the growth of corn fields in the Magic Valley is no surprise. Surprising, however, is the extent to which corn has infiltrated the higher-elevation fields throughout the state, such as those in the vicinity of Ririe.

The shift of crop land from wheat to corn is well-documented. A parallel shift is happening in our diet as the foods we eat contain more corn and less wheat. Consumers need look no further than the cereal aisle to see signs of this trend. Much of the recent category growth has been made in cereals where corn is listed as the first ingredient. The corn industry estimates that 75 percent of the products sold in a grocery store are corn-based.

Unless wheat can become more competitive with corn and soybeans, it is on a path to becoming a minor crop in the U.S. Net returns per acre to farmers favor other crops in areas where options exist, and the differential is widening. Biotech traits can make a major contribution to changing the competitive equation.

Each genetically engineered trait added to corn gives it a profit advantage over wheat. It is estimated that the penalty to wheat for not having just one drought-tolerant genetically engineered trait translates to 60 cents per bushel. Due to strong genetic improvements, Kansas, long known as the “wheat state,” now produces more corn than wheat. On the horizon are new genetically engineered traits to make corn drought tolerant, which will cause the Corn Belt to expand further at the expense of wheat.

Closing the door to genetically engineered wheat traits will cause growers to abandon wheat, while moving too fast will cause markets to close doors. Harmonious change would be implementing reasonable tolerances while making sure high-quality and safe wheat is delivered to the customer, with biotech traits subjected to extensive testing and tough government approvals.

Moving forward on this path is essential in order to sustain a healthy and robust industry and to ensure that U.S. farmers continue to be a dependable supply for customers who enjoy wheat-based food products.

 Blaine Jacobson is executive director of the Idaho Wheat Commission. He was raised on a wheat farm in Swan Valley.

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