Climate, religion factors in wheat biotech issue
April 3, 2012
L. Joshua Sosland
Bayer CropScience has been among the most active companies conducting wheat biotechnology research, making recent observations by the head of its cereals program stand as another layer of thinking to ongoing discussions on the subject.
In an interview in Milling & Baking News, Marcus Weidler, global crop manager, cereals, at Bayer suggested that the gap between global wheat production (with average annual gains of 1%) and population growth (2% per year) does not tell the entire story when it comes to the importance of investing in new technology.
Dr. Weidler, based in Monheim, Germany, said global wheat yields actually decreased 6% between 1980 and 2008 because of temperature and precipitation trends, a situation that will worsen if global temperatures rise further.
“An increase of 1 degree centigrade will reduce yields by 10%,” he said. Beyond the adverse impact of the rise in the temperature, Dr. Weidler said wider swings in temperatures, which have become more common, also pose a threat. He identified recent examples of devastation caused by uncharacteristic heat during the wheat flowering stage last year in western Europe and major prospective losses in Ukraine from extreme cold this winter.
Dr. Weidler went on to say while much attention in the United States among those concerned with wheat biotechnology relates to consumer acceptance in Japan, Europe and the United States, the Islamic world is key. Work has begun in recent years to navigate potential acceptance issues, based on religious grounds among the world’s 2.1 billion Muslims. The issue is of heightened importance because these countries are the largest importers of wheat, and food costs consume such a large proportion of income, making the group highly sensitive to rising costs.
While the U.S. wheat foods industry has been seeking end user traits for bioengineered wheat, Dr. Weidler makes a powerful case for the necessity of significant progress in developing traits aimed at accelerating production gains through higher yields, yield stability and fertilizer use efficiency.