M&G Exclusive: The big interview

GM wheat: A 10-year wait?

By Nicola Cottam

- Last updated on GMT

Monsanto has been investing in wheat breeding research, but its lead technologist says it could be another 10 years before the strains are commercialized
Monsanto has been investing in wheat breeding research, but its lead technologist says it could be another 10 years before the strains are commercialized

Related tags Wheat Monsanto

 Monsanto is pressing ahead with field tests on herbicide-tolerant wheat, but commercialization isn't round the corner, its head wheat technologist says.

Claire CaJacob,lead wheat technologist at Monsanto, told Milling & Grains that while Monsanto is back on track in its bid to develop herbicide-tolerant genetically modified (GM) wheat, it could be a decade before it is commercially available.

The world’s largest seed company halted earlier attempts to create GM wheat tolerant to Round-Up herbicides in 2004 due to the decline of planted spring wheat acreage and opposition from farmers fearful of the negative effects on wheat exports. However Monsanto has since consolidated its position in the wheat market with the purchase of the WestBred seed business in 2009, giving it additional resources and expertise.

The controversial seed manufacturer has also been nurturing its somewhat turbulent relationship with the wheat industry and collaborated to enhance seed performance to increase yields and productivity for farmers.

CaJacob said: “We have been investing in wheat breeding research – increasing the number of wheat breeding trials and deploying advanced breeding tools like molecular markers and seed chipping technology that will help develop better varieties faster. Our wheat breeding efforts are also focused on preventing yield loss due to disease and other environmental stressors​.”

GM wheat in field tests

The development of new conventional seed varieties will no-doubt serve as the catalyst to new biotechnology traits in the future, she said, but in the meantime efforts to develop herbicide-tolerant wheat are continuing in the background.

There are currently two wheat-tolerant herbicide projects running in tandem – both of which are in ‘phase 2’, involving field tests. The two wheat traits (one for glyphosate resistance and the other for glufosinate and dicamba resistance) aim to provide multiple herbicide-tolerant properties offering farmers more choice in weed management.

“This testing will begin to identify the value the product will offer farmers, which must be quantifiable in order to keep it on the path to commercialisation​. Experts agree that multiple modes of action are critical to a successful long-term, weed resistance management strategy,”  ​CaJacob explained.

Industry support is crucial

While it may be some years before Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant wheat receives commercial approval, the company is already garnering support from farmers anxious to find a long-term solution to support increasing demand relative to productivity. CaJacob confirmed that around 20% of the food calories consumed by the world’s population is derived from wheat but, on average, global demand for wheat is growing at a faster rate than productivity.

“To meet this demand and help wheat better compete with other crops for the acre, it is critical that we continue to innovate.As part of that effort, we are committed to working collaboratively with the industry and wheat farmers to ensure any introduction of new technologies is done thoughtfully.Overall, we believe we can help wheat be more competitive with other crops and provide a sustainable wheat supply,” ​she said.

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