Biotechnology in wheat

UNDERSTANDING THE ONTARIO WHEAT BOARD’S NEW POSITION

DESPITE BEING FIGURATIVELY set on the backburner for the past five years, the debate surrounding biotechnology in wheat has recently become part of the conversation in the countryside.

News of Monsanto’s acquisition of WestBred, LLC, a Montana-based company that specializes in wheat germplasm, in July spread quickly. Also spreading in the farm news was the statement in favour of the commercialization of wheat biotechnology released by producer organizations from the US, Australia and Canada.

Although not as contentious an issue as in the past, the debate on whether or not biotechnology should be an option for wheat variety development is back in the industry.

AROUND THE TABLE
Early this summer the Ontario Wheat Producers Marketing Board (OWPMB) was approached to sign their name to a Wheat Biotechnology Commercialization statement supported by producer organizations from the US, Canada and Australia. The statement supports and encourages research and coordinated commercialization of wheat biotechnology “in the interest of expressing support for more efficient, sustainable and profitable production of wheat around the world.”

“The board went over all aspects of the statement and gathered our own background research before making a decision,” says David Whaley, chair of the OWPMB.

After careful consideration, the board decided against signing onto the statement. “We decided not to support the document because it didn’t reflect Ontario’s unique situation,” explains Henry Van Ankum, vice chair of the OWPMB. “The statement talks about competition for acreage from other, more technologically-friendly crops such as corn and soybeans. But that just isn’t the case in Ontario. Many farmers see a lot of value in growing wheat.”

Ontario is currently the only wheat growing region in North America with increasing acreage and our yields have shown growth as well.

“Since we don’t deal with the same environmental and market conditions as the wheat growing areas represented in the statement, it didn’t feel appropriate to sign on,” concludes Whaley. Specifically, he is referring to the statement’s great emphasis on decreasing acreage and drought.

Whaley continues to explain that “the board recognizes wheat biotechnology as an important issue that shouldn’t be ignored.”

REVISITING THE PAST
“The change in the atmosphere surrounding biotechnology in wheat did not go unnoticed around the board table,” says Whaley. “It became apparent that we needed to take another look at our own position.”The old position statement of the OWPMB states “that in regards to GMO wheat, that if there is a proven benefit to the consumer, based on substantial marketing data across a broad spectrum of the industry (i.e. health benefits, nutritional benefits, fusarium resistance) then the Board supports a GMO wheat being introduced into Canada. Until such time the Board promotes research but is not in a position to support the introduction of GMO wheat.”

The board decided to revise its position because “the old position was vague and it did not account for many of the possible technologies that may come out of biotechnology research,” explains Van Ankum.

As the new position reads, the OWPMB “does not object to the development and introduction of biotechnology in wheat provided that:

  • The technology adds value to producers, the industry, the environment and/or consumers.
  • A marketing process is developed that assures the needs of customers of Ontario wheat are met.
  • A stewardship requirement to maintain trait detection is utilized.
  • Current science-based regulatory criteria must be upheld to ensure the safety of human and animal health and the environment.”

“The provisions within the new statement make it very clear that the OWPMB recognizes the importance of safety for consumers, the environment and industry,” continues Whaley.

According to both Whaley and Van Ankum, the goal around the board table was to develop a position statement that covered all the bases of safety and responsible introduction of technology which also ensured that Ontario wheat producers would have access to new technologies to grow their crops efficiently and sustainably.

The statement was met with approval from the majority of wheat producers at their Annual General Meeting in August.

WHAT’S DIFFERENT?
“The current science and the current debate are very different today than it was five years ago,” says Whaley.

Five years ago, the topic was in the forefront of both urban and rural media as Monsanto shelved plans for an herbicide-resistant wheat variety. Research plans for Roundup Ready resistant wheat were announced in 1997 and were met with heated debate in both the farm and urban community. Once plans were pulled from the shelves, the debate was mostly scratched from the news reel. “Today, we are beyond talks of Roundup Ready wheat. We are talking about traits that could make wheat resistant to fusarium or even wheat that is more nutritious,” says Van Ankum. “There’s a lot of research underway throughout North America and it’s important that, at the end of the day, Ontario producers have access to the best.”

SUPPORT FOR CONVENTIONAL METHODS
In addition to the board’s clarified position on biotechnology, it is also important to note the OWPMB’s efforts to increase the profile of conventional breeding.

“It’s not a silver bullet,” says Van Ankum, referring to biotechnology in wheat. “To combat production issues such as fusarium, we need to take an integrated approach. In the future, biotechnology may be part of that, but the board will continue to support conventional methods because they also provide farmers with a lot of value,” says Van Ankum. The board has many other initiatives aimed at supporting conventional breeding, including the financial support of public breeding programs through its research fund.

MOVING FORWARD
“As we move into Grain Farmers of Ontario, it is our hope that the new board will adopt this position and continue encouraging research in wheat genetics and breeding,” says Whaley. “But ultimately, it is up to the elected board of directors to make that decision.”

Ontario Wheat Board’s position
The Ontario Wheat Producers’ Marketing Board statement on biotechnology in wheat reads:

Ontario has a proven track record of responsible introduction of biotechnology in soybeans, corn and canola. All biotech crops are currently regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada. Crops derived through biotechnology are subject to regulatory scrutiny before commercialization.

The OWPMB wants to ensure that Ontario wheat producers have access to new technologies to grow their crops efficiently and sustainably.

Therefore, the OWPMB does not object to the development and introduction of biotechnology in wheat provided that:

  • The technology adds value to producers, the industry, the environment and/or consumers.
  • A marketing process is developed that assures the needs of customers of Ontario wheat are met.
  • A stewardship requirement to maintain trait detection is utilized.
  • Current science-based regulatory criteria must be upheld to ensure the safety of human and animal health and the environment.

OTHER POSITIONS
The National Association of Wheat Growers, the US Wheat Associates, and the North American Millers’ Association from the US along with the Grain Growers of Canada, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, the Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission, the Grains Council of Australia, the Grain Growers Association and the Pastorolists and Graziers Association of Western Australia have all signed a joint statement on “Wheat Biotechnology Commercialization.”

The full statement can be found on NAWG’s website at wheatworld.org. •