Wheat Farmers Reconsider Biotech

  • Wheat farmers are re-considering the genetically modified seed question (Photo courtesy of the USDA)

You’ve probably noticed the price of
bread is a lot higher than just a year ago.
A big reason is higher wheat prices. Bakeries
are trying to figure how to keep costs down,
and farmers think they have an answer: develop
genetically modified wheat seeds. Julie Grant
reports:

Transcript

You’ve probably noticed the price of
bread is a lot higher than just a year ago.
A big reason is higher wheat prices. Bakeries
are trying to figure how to keep costs down,
and farmers think they have an answer: develop
genetically modified wheat seeds. Julie Grant
reports:

Nearly every major US crop is grown with genetically modified seeds – corn,
soybeans, cotton.

Biotech companies take genes from other organisms and put
them into corn and soybean seeds. This alters the behavior
of crops. One of the most used alters crops to withstand
herbicides. So, when an herbicide is sprayed, it kills the
weeds, but the crops survive.

But wheat producers said thank you, but no, to those genetically altered seeds.

Daren Coppock is chief of the National Wheat Growers Association. He says a
lot of wheat farmers didn’t need the genetically altered traits being offered.

First, weeds just aren’t a big problem in some types of wheat.

And second, Coppock says wheat growers were worried about the export market
in Europe and Japan. In those countries, they call genetically altered crops
‘Frankenfoods’.

“And so, it was something where some of our members would get the benefit, but
everybody faced potential risk of having customers say, ‘we don’t want this in
wheat.’”

Since the farmers didn’t want it, Coppock says Monsanto and the other big seed
companies dropped research into biotech wheat. That was five years ago.
Coppock says turning down biotech has since proven to be a bad move for
wheat growers.

Now, the big biotech companies don’t do as much research on how to improve
wheat, including breeding drought resistant varieties. Drought in Australia and
Canada is part of the reason there’s a wheat shortage now, making prices
higher.

“And so the conclusion that the industry basically has come to is, we have to do
something to change the competitiveness equation or we will end up, wheat will
end up, being a minor crop.”

And that could mean wheat shortages in the future.

So wheat farmers are re-considering the genetically modified seed question.
They think asking for new biotech wheat strains might kick start research on
wheat.

Bakers say something needs to be done – wheat prices are way high. And the
people who bake breads, muffins, cookies, and cakes are concerned.

Lee Sanders is with the American Bakers Association, which represents
Pepperidge Farms, Sara Lee, and many smaller bakeries.

“When wheat prices go up 173% in one year, it certainly effects how bakers can
do business. And how smaller bakers, in particular, if they can keep their doors
open.”

Those rising wheat prices are being passed on to consumers. A loaf of bread
that cost $2.50 last year has jumped to $2.85.

But bakers aren’t convinced biotech seeds will lower wheat prices. They’re more
concerned about how their customers will respond to the idea of genetically
modified wheat.

(supermarket sound)

Shoppers in the bread aisle at this Ohio supermarket have mixed views.

“We buy the cheapest bread we can find, so it wouldn’t make much difference.”

(laughs) “If it’s bread and it’s 70 cents, I buy it. It doesn’t bother me at all.”

“I don’t know, it just doesn’t sound good. I mean, I don’t mind paying a little bit
more for bread. Everything else is more expensive now too.”

“If it would keep prices down, I’d probably actually go with genetically altered
wheat.”

You might not realize it, but you’re already eating lots of genetically modified
foods. They’re added to all kinds of processed foods, from frozen foods to juices
and cereals.

The US government says they’re safe – so they’re not labeled.

But people in many other countries are more aware – and a lot more concerned
about biotech foods.

Doug Gurian Sherman is a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned
Scientists. If American wheat goes biotech, he says farmers will probably lose
their export markets.

“They can go elsewhere and they will go elsewhere. They really are trying to
avoid it for any kind of human food use.”

Even if wheat growers can persuade Monsanto and the others to start
researching genetically modified wheat, it will take at least five to ten years
before anything is in the field.

By then, farmers say, climate change may make
some places so dry that people will need biotech wheat whether they like it or
not.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Related Links

Report: U.S. Not Ready for Bioterror Attack

  • Some see national struggles with the availability of the flu vaccine as a measure of our readiness for an act of bioterrorism. (Photo by Pamela Roth, courtesy of creatingonline.com)

A new study finds the nation is still not prepared for a biological terrorist attack… mainly because it could take us years to respond to it. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jenny Lawton has this report:

Transcript

A new study finds the nation is still not prepared for a biological terrorist attack –
mainly because it could take us years to respond to it. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Jenny Lawton reports:


The study found that viruses specially manufactured by terrorists – or even a rare, natural
virus – could be devastating to the country. That’s because as it stands now, it takes
nearly a decade to develop vaccines against them. Mark Lister is one of the authors of the
report, published by the Sarnoff Corporation and the Center for Biosecurity of the University
of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He says the recent scramble over the shortage of flu vaccines
just proves the point…


“If we are fairly ill-prepared for an annual flu vaccination process, how prepared are we
going to be if a bioterrorist event occurs on a large scale?”


Lister says the government needs to coordinate its efforts more closely with drug and
biotech companies. That, he says, could help new drugs of all kinds hit the market faster.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jenny Lawton.

Related Links

“Biosafety Engineers” for Gmo Industry?

  • According to the USDA, 40% of the corn grown this year in the U.S. has been genetically modified. Some researchers fear there's not enough oversight on the rapidly growing biotech industry. A program at the University of Minnesota wants to create a new profession - the 'Biosafety Engineer.' (photo courtesy of the USDA)

Genetic engineering – especially when it comes to food – is a battleground. On one side: people who fear a world of contaminated food, harming humans and the environment. The other side fears we’ll miss an opportunity to prevent hunger and disease. Now there’s a ground breaking initiative that might produce compromise. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Stucky reports that some researchers think safety can be built into the bio tech industry:

Transcript

Genetic engineering – especially when it comes to food – is a
battleground. On one side: people who fear a world of contaminated
food, harming humans and the environment. The other side fears
we’ll miss an opportunity to prevent hunger and disease. Now, there’s
a ground breaking initiative that might produce compromise. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Stucky reports that some researchers
think safety can be built into the bio tech industry:


To remove a gene from one organism and transfer it to another…
that’s genetic engineering. Genetically modified or GM crops are
easier to grow, according to bio tech supporters and in the future
might be more nutritious. But they also might contain hidden
allergens, because they use genes from a plant or animal that
people might be allergic to. And there are concerns that GM crops
might harm the environment by crossbreeding with natural plants in
the wild. And so the University of Minnesota is proposing a
solution – an entirely new profession – call them biotech safety
engineers – along with a new science of bio safety. Anne
Kapuscinski is a researcher at the University of Minnesota and a
force behind the initiative called Safety First. Kapuscinski says
rather than regulating the industry after a new product is developed,
companies should prove safety first.


“It will mean that some ideas that will be on the lab bench won’t go
any further in development because the developers
will realize there are safety concerns that we don’t know how to
mitigate, or how to prevent from happening or how to address.”


And that could save companies money… by avoiding costly mistakes
such as the Starlink corn debacle. That’s when genetically modified
corn accidentally mixed with conventional corn and got into dozens of
foods. Kapuscinski says it was common knowledge in the industry that
the corn could get mixed up because of the way it’s transported and
stored… which might have been avoided with uniform safety standards
and government oversight. But until now, industry has resisted that.
They’ve been touting the benefits rather than the risks such as this
ad campaign put out by a group called the Biotechnology Industry
Organization.


(music under)


“Biotechnology, a big word that means hope.”


But one expert says if the industry wants to inspire public
confidence, it should support the Safety First initiative. John
Howard is the founder of a Texas based biotech firm called
ProdiGene. Not all biotech companies support the University of
Minnesota effort, but Howard thinks it has a good chance of
alleviating public concerns.


“The problem is, however, if you do it yourselves, what
credibility do you have as a company promoting your own safety
assessment? So an independent agency or source that comes out
and says, ‘Look, this is now credible, we’ve looked at all the safety
issues,’ that’s great, and if they find something that we’ve missed
then fine, we want to do it that way.”


John Howard says his company is working to bio-engineer corn to
deliver drugs. For instance, if you need insulin you could have it
in your breakfast cereal.


Opponents of bio tech say we don’t know all of the ramifications of
engineering drugs into food or altering the genetics of any organism,
but John Howard thinks we know enough to be safe.


“You can always argue that we just don’t know
enough yet and that’s an argument that can go on and on. And this
applies to everything that we think about in terms of risk. But
what you can do is look at a risk benefit equation. There’s
no question this is a for-profit company, let’s not make any mistake,
but not at the expense of harming people.”


And supporters say the Safety First initiative will see to that.
Lawrence Jacobs is a political scientist at the University of
Minnesota and a leader in Safety First. Jacobs says, like it or not,
GM food is here to stay.


“If we do not find some credible way to address the biosafety issues in
biotechnology, we are heading for a major maelstrom. The challenge
that’s out there now for the biotechnology industry right now is get
your act together. And the potential for consumers to panic in this
country is significant.”


Of course safety standards are already engineered into the
manufacturing of airplanes and cars. But will that work in an
industry which is manufacturing a living thing?


Supporters of the Safety First initiative say there’s too little
oversight on an industry that could have much greater impact on health
and the environment.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mary Stucky.

Related Links

Engineering a Cleaner Pig

Like most farmers, hog farmers have seen a shift from small, family-owned farms, to large-scale hog operations, but more pigs on less land creates some major environmental problems – especially, what to do with all that manure. Bio-tech researchers in Canada believe they have created an animal that will help. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:

Epa Examines Biotech Corn Distribution

The Environmental Protection Agency says a genetically altered corn intended only for animals is in human food less often than first thought. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports: