May 02, 2014

Farmers Face Challenge to Win Acceptance of Genetically Modified Wheat

Wheat trials at a field day in Texas. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M AgriLife / Flickr

Wheat trials at a field day in Texas. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M AgriLife/Flickr. 

By Joseph Baucum
For Reporting Texas

Jack Norman knows firsthand that genetically modified corn and soybeans have increased yields and profits over the last 20 years, and he’s confident GMO wheat will have a similar impact.

Norman, who has produced corn, soybeans, and wheat for half a century at Norman Farms in Howe, north of Dallas, also understands that he and other growers face a big challenge.

Unlike corn and soybeans, of which 90 percent produced each year is genetically engineered and used for feeding livestock, most wheat is produced for human consumption. For every staunch GMO supporter, there is an equally passionate detractor wary of the health consequences of consuming genetically modified crops. People on both sides of the debate brim with conviction, and unless big agriculture can allay consumers’ fears of biotech danger, genetically modified wheat will have a hard time finding market acceptance.

Norman and other growers don’t have much time to convince consumers that GMO wheat will be safe. Monsanto, the world’s largest biotech seed company, is “several years away” from creating the first genetically modified wheat, but has made significant progress toward that reality, chief technology officer Robb Fraley said in a January conference call. Like its corn, cotton and soybeans, St. Louis-based Monsanto’s wheat would be engineered to tolerate the company’s herbicide Roundup.

Norman said that could be a game-changer for a U.S. industry that has declined in acreage and international exports over the last three decades, while other biotech crops have flourished.

“If we use biotech wheat, we know that we can use less herbicides, fewer insecticides, and we feel like we can have an operation that’s more sustainable because this allows us to plow the soils less,” Norman said. “Those are some plus sides. We feel like we can increase productivity, produce our wheat cheaper and be more competitive.”

A 2013 New York Times poll found that the American public “overwhelmingly supports” labeling foods containing GMO ingredients. Ninety-three percent of respondents said foods with GMOs should be identified, and three-quarters expressed concern over GMOs in their food, most related to long-term health effects. Norman said he thinks the public’s anxiety stems from the agriculture industry’s failure to educate consumers about the technology’s safety, especially at the grass-roots level.

“The farmers themselves have to do a better job of advocating the safety of biotech and letting the consumers know that it is safe,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has five classes of wheat: hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, white, and durum and rye. Due to the state’s climate, most Texas farmers produce winter wheat. Norman Farms grows soft red winter. Workers lay seed in November and harvest in the first week of June.

This year, Norman has planted 7,200 acres of wheat, and he said he hopes to get 70 to 80 bushels per acre. Annual revenue from wheat production fluctuates due to various circumstances, drought or freeze being the biggest culprits, but Norman said a good year would net $20 to $50 per acre. As is true statewide, his sales are split evenly between domestic and international markets. In order for his operation to be profitable, he said it is essential that consumers in both markets are receptive to biotech wheat by the time Monsanto’s newest creation is ready for commercial use.

Efforts to gain customers’ trust are occurring at the national level, according to Rodney Mosier, executive vice president of Texas Wheat Producers, which provides support and funding for wheat research and represents Texas farmers politically. The National Association of Wheat Growers, a nonprofit group, surveyed farmers in 2009 to gauge opinions on GMOs, leading to a petition supporting the commercialization of biotech wheat. It also partnered with four other wheat industry organizations and released “The Case For Biotech Wheat,” an eight-page report detailing how GMO wheat could solve competitive issues in the industry. Mosier said that is only the beginning of the outreach.

“We’ve got a long ways to go before we can get customer acceptance in the marketplace,” Mosier said.

The validity of research into the safety of GMO crops for consumption is a sticking point for both sides of the debate. GMO opponents say that companies tied to the industry pay for the studies and affect their conclusions; supporters say opponents ignore science.

The Organic Consumers Association, a public interest nonprofit based in Finland, Minn., rejects all crops that have been genetically modified to make plants resistant to herbicides and insecticides. Alexis Daden-Meyer, the organization’s political director, cited recent reports on biotechnology from the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and the American Medical Association in support of Organic Consumers’ stance, particularly the AMA’s recommendation that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration require safety assessments of foods containing GMO ingredients before they can be sold.

“These crops should have been safety-tested before we started eating them,” Daden-Meyer said. “If they had been safety-tested, we would either know that they’re safe or we would know what the harms are, but we don’t know.”

The AMA report conflicts with Daden-Meyer’s assertion. It does recommend mandatory pre-market tests, but also says, “To date, all manufacturers of bioengineered foods intended for marketing have engaged in the voluntary notification process,” which includes safety tests. The AMA also concluded there is no need for GMO labeling and that, at the moment, biotech food poses no more health risk than its traditional counterparts do.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine report, which called for a moratorium on foods with genetically modified ingredients, has also been the target of criticism. The Genetic Literacy Project, a biotech advocacy nonprofit with no financial ties to the industry, according to its website, notes that the environmental medical group is not recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialists. It also said the group used anecdotal and unsubstantiated methods to reach its conclusions.

Clark Neely is a Texas A&M University assistant professor and one of Texas’ leading agronomists, and some of his research is financed by Texas Wheat Producers. He said the disconnect between pro- and anti-GMO factions arises from distrust. He said many biotech opponents refuse to trust science-based, peer-reviewed articles on biotechnology safety and instead base their arguments on information from blog posts or websites lacking credentials.

“Until the public at large becomes more trusting of scientific research, I do not foresee a general acceptance of GMOs in the U.S.,” he said.

Texas is the third-largest U.S. wheat producer, with 3.4 million acres harvested each year, according to Texas A&M’s Agrilife Extension Service. The cash value to farmers is $288 million, and wheat generates $973 million for the economy. The next several years will be pivotal for efforts by wheat producers such as Norman as well as state and national wheat organizations to convince consumers that GMO wheat is safe. Inevitably, not everyone will be convinced, but Neely said he knows one way to settle the issue.

“If food ever became scarce enough or expensive enough, the GMO argument would fade away in the presence of empty stomachs and empty wallets,” he said.