Much to be gained from genetic modification

by Morton Sosland
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S o many good reasons may be cited for food manufacturers supporting genetic modification of wheat that it is increasingly difficult to understand how a single imaginary negative stands in the way of this happening. That negative takes the form of concerns that consumers may refuse to eat foods containing flour milled from wheat that has been modified by the application of biotechnology. Even though this possibility is untested in any substantive way and even though the objection is based on conjecture stirred by the worst sort of food safety and environmental scare mongering, it has enough power to prompt hesitancy and even a strong “no” from people who should know better. It is high time that this implausible situation ends.

Without demeaning the strength of any one of the excellent reasons that this should happen, it seems eminently sensible to assign priority to maintaining the competitiveness of wheat as a crop being produced in America. It is the all-important food grain. Wheat has lost considerable acreage to crops that have the advantage of being genetically modified. Primarily because of the upward trend in the yields of biotech-improved corn, soybeans and cotton, those crops have not only gained acreage share in regions where they historically competed for grower attention, but have encroached significantly into areas where wheat’s dominance was once unquestioned. Improvements in the genetics of these crops have made them suited for growing in regions of higher altitudes and less rainfall that once were the exclusive province of wheat.

In a timeframe when yield of wheat has barely budged for several decades while per-acre outturns of corn, soybeans and cotton have consistently risen, the advantages of biotechnology and especially genetic modification are striking. Why this is so rests firmly on how the crops have gained from the application of scientific advances that are just beginning to be tried on wheat. Even though wheat has been modified for thousands of years in a search for yield and quality gains, it is only recently that biotechnology has been embraced in a highly tentative manner. This means that it is some time before a biotech-modified wheat will be offered to farmers.

Knowing that biotechnologists have produced varieties of corn and soybeans suited for specific end uses, like healthier oils and grains designed for processing, whets the hopes of food manufacturers for advances in wheat that will match these outcomes. Once the technical difficulties of making changes in wheat genetics are realized, it becomes understandable why research is first focused on crop improvements and lowering production costs.

It is only after the path to significant yield gains has been found that scientists working with wheat will turn to the task of improved milling as well as for making gains in nutrition and manufacturing. It is definitely not fantasy to imagine how biotechnology will add value to this crop at every level. Instead of the fears and the scorn that opponents of modified crops find joy in shouting, it is delightful to dream of the benefits for humankind that are promised by the application of this technology.

Yet, that one obstacle based on imagined fear must be overcome before realizing the great promise of modified wheat. This requires extensive planning along with education of the public in a highly focused effort designed to show that biotechnology and genetic modification have caused no problems in health or well-being of people and have been, if anything, a positive for assuring land sustainability. The objections and barriers standing in wheat’s way are largely due to the admittedly clumsy way in which these changes were made in other crops. All sectors of the wheat-based foods industry appear ready to face the task at hand by being sure unacceptable negatives and risks are avoided. The goal must be undertaking a food industry-wide effort on behalf of scientific progress that offers much to the world.

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