Wheat Summit developing plan on biotechnology

by Eric Schroeder
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KANSAS CITY — Issues surrounding wheat biotechnology took center stage earlier this week at a Wheat Summit gathering in Kansas City. Following a full-day meeting April 17 at the Westin Crown Center hotel in Kansas City, groups representing various sectors of the wheat chain, including growers, millers and bakers committed to the development of an action plan aimed at understanding and addressing concerns currently holding back the development and commercialization of bioengineered wheat.

While biotechnology was only one of a series of issues identified as critical by the group when it first met in 2006, wheat biotechnology has become the principal item being addressed. The April 17 meeting included a morning session in which various wheat industry sectors each articulated their perspectives and concerns regarding biotechnology. The afternoon was spent in a facilitated discussion trying to hone in on hot-point issues and the development of a plan to address those issues. Action groups will be created in specific areas toward that end with a follow-up meeting expected again late in the summer or early in the fall.

While wheat growers have pursued with increasing vigor the ability to plant wheat with bioengineered traits, the baking industry has voiced concerns about whether consumers would shun product containing flour ground from bioengineered wheat. Lee Sanders, senior vice-president of government relations and public affairs at the American Bakers Association, said the meeting was designed to create a path to work through the impasse in the sectors’ approaches.

"Wheat growers have a greater sense of urgency," she said. "Bakers, as always are being cautious and asking questions. We need to watch out for our brand integrity, which is key, and know more about what consumers are thinking. At the same time, we certainly didn’t expect what we’ve seen this year (in wheat markets). We need to weigh all our options so that our members can make informed decisions.

"Our emphasis is on the consumers’ preferences and giving the consumer options they desire. I could imagine a future in which you have three options for baked foods — traditional, organic and biotech."

Ms. Sanders acknowledged, though, that consumers currently do not have the option to buy products containing bioengineered wheat.

"It is a complicated issue, not one on which you can make decisions without thoroughly fleshing out a number of considerations," she said.

Darren Coppock, chief executive officer of the National Association of Wheat Growers, was upbeat in the aftermath of the Kansas City meeting.

"I’m optimistic, more so than six months ago," he said. "We have meaningful participation from all the constituency groups. This group is committed to defining an enabling environment to allow biotechnology in wheat. We are asking each of the sectors what they are looking for in terms of the positives and the challenges. We will measure our progress with specific benchmarks."

Mr. Coppock said that while the process seeks to find an "enabling environment," the process commits no one to embracing wheat biotechnology.

"No one is signing a piece of paper saying they will support anything," he said. "The questions we are going to answer are, ‘In order to have successful commercialization, what needs to happen? What issues need to be addressed?’"

Elizabeth A. (Betsy) Faga, president of the North American Millers’ Association, said that concern in the discussions about surging wheat prices was tempered by the knowledge that the industry had in the past failed to come to an agreement about wheat biotechnology and that an effective process was required if the industry is to be successful now.

"It isn’t just the wheat growers," she said. "Other sectors expressed a sense of urgency as well. In the past, we’ve talked and talked but seemed to go around in circles. With the Wheat Summit, there is respect for a deliberative process we are taking and respect for one another’s perspectives. This seems to be the only and best way to move forward."

That said, Mr. Coppock and Ms. Faga agreed that in any event it would be several years, perhaps as many as 10, before bioengineered wheat becomes commercially available.

"As long as other crops are making technology gains, I think we will continue to see strong pressure on wheat acres until we can turn the technology trend around," Mr. Coppock said. "Unless the market is comfortable paying an $8 spread above corn, wheat acres will continue to migrate to other crops.

"The clock will not begin ticking on the development of bioengineered wheat until the seed companies see evidence of durable commitment, not just from the producers. They have sure bets for corn, soybeans, canola and cotton. To divert money for wheat, they need to be comfortable that there will be payoff at the end."

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