Word on Wheat: We Can’t Afford to Wait on Biotech

June 26, 2009 Bookmark and Share

Byron Richard, NAWG Research and Technology Committee Chairman

As I look outside my farm shop window and witness my second day of rain in as many days, I reflect back to last summer when a scene such as this was non-existent. How quickly things can change; such is the world of agriculture. The difference is that 10 years ago, a year like the drought of 2008 was survivable; in today’s world of high costs, a wreck like 2008 can be the final. I need all the tools at my disposal if I’m going to compete – locally, nationally and globally – in the agriculture industry. That’s why I believe that giving the tool of biotechnology to the wheat industry is so important.

It’s no secret that wheat acres are giving way to corn and soybean acres in my home state. While supply and demand economics is a factor in the shift, technological progress in corn and soybeans is the principle reason that wheat acres are losing the “space race” in North Dakota agriculture. Yield advantages and agronomic advances in competing crops are putting wheat growers like me at a disadvantage, and it’s leaving wheat acres in the dust. The recent announcement of the imminent introduction of drought tolerant corn emphasizes this point.

Certainly we’ve seen agronomic advances in conventional wheat breeding, and I applaud the progress. However, the current wheat breeding structure isn’t enough to overcome the challenges wheat producers face in factors such as non-competitive yields, disease resistance, quality standards and climate tolerance.

Public research dollars for wheat research specifically and ag research in general continue to shrink, and shrinking with them is the wheat producer’s ability to grow wheat and remain viable. If wheat producers are asked to feed an ever-growing worldwide population, it is imperative that we be given the tools necessary to keep us competitive. Biotechnology is one of those tools.

Strides in biotech wheat are being made. On a national level, wheat growers across the country have strongly voiced their support for biotech wheat. On an international level, thanks to the hard work of NAWG and other grower groups, we have in place a trilateral statement regarding biotech wheat introduction into the marketplace. The wheat commissions and U.S. Wheat Associates continue their efforts on international market acceptance. The biotech industry is continuing its research efforts on needed biotech traits. Together the wheat industry is moving forward.

Wheat producers can no longer afford last class passage in the commodity parade. We can’t afford stagnant yields, we can’t afford sub-par disease resistance, we can’t afford quality discounts, and we can’t afford another 2008 drought. Wheat producers shouldn’t have to, especially when the tools are in the here and now. We have the tools for increased yields, we have the tools for scab resistance, we have the tools for sprout control, and we have the tools for drought tolerance. Shelving biotechnology that can feed a hungry planet is a disservice to world. The time to act is now!

– Richard is a wheat producer from Belfield, N.D.