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Oklahoma State U. Chief wheat breeder: GMO’s promise oversold

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The GMO debate consistently is divided along the lines of what proponents of the technology consider to be anti-science and normally deteriorates into a display of immature name-calling. Supporters of genetically modified crops often claim that scientists and farmers are in agreement that commercial GMO crops are completely safe and necessary to “feed the world” as it grows past 7 billion people. The following article represents one example of varied reasons for resistance to the corporate technological takeover of the food supply.
By Candace Krebs
Contributing Writer

The wheat industry has been working for years to gain access to the same technology used to develop high-tech seed for corn, soybeans and other crops, but at least one prominent breeder has qualms about the potential drawbacks of rushing to introduce genetically modified wheat.

“Among consumers, there are a lot of myths and fallacies being spread, but I think they are also being spread on the science side,” said Brett Carver, chief wheat breeder at Oklahoma State University. “There’ve been some promises made about GM wheat that I don’t think are true or are being overstated.”

His main complaint is the way wheat has been portrayed as lagging behind other crops with the blame often placed on a lack of genetic modification. Carver is currently helping to edit a technical book that follows advancements in 16 major field crops and says studies show wheat is more than holding its own.

Carver contends changing climate trends in the last 25 years have benefited corn and beans more than GM seed development has. Most of the yield gains breeders have achieved are the result of taking advantage of a longer growing season and the ability to plant earlier in the spring, he said.

In addition, the most common application of GM technology so far — herbicide resistance — “protects rather than increases” yields, Carver noted.

One of his main concerns with genetic modification is it represents “the most expensive tool in the toolbox.”

“I do want to be able to use the technology, but I want to use it responsibly,” Carver said. “What that means is, if I use it, I’m going to use it as a last resort. Why? Because of cost and because of public opposition.

“My approach,” he added, “is we better make sure we don’t have another option before we go there.”

This year’s wheat crop offers a perfect example. Duster, the most popular variety grown in Oklahoma, carries a trait for rust resistance. However, as a result of the drought, he and other experts say it is the first year they can remember that not one single rust pustule has been found anywhere in the state. If rust resistance was a licensed GM trait, however, farmers would be forced to pay for it, whether they were able to derive any benefit from it or not.

Another example comes in the form of an important health trait already looming on the horizon: the introduction of wheat with a healthier starch profile that slows digestion and prevents a rapid rise in blood sugar. Creating this high amylose wheat by modifying one gene sounds like a problem tailor-made for GM technology. But in fact, existing molecular technologies already allow breeders to identify and target the right genomic segment to exploit with traditional breeding techniques, potentially resulting in what Carver calls “a total non-GMO solution.”

“Genetic modification is not the only way to get there, but you don’t read that,” Carver said.

He fears wheat farmers are hearing one message on GM technology: that the wheat industry can’t successfully compete with other crops or make significant improvements without it.

“We’ve now got farmers convinced that genetic modification will give us wheat that will grow on three inches of rain and that it’s the only way to solve our problems. That’s how destructive the conversation has become,” he said.

Privatization changes landscape

Carver’s wide-ranging professional experience gives him a unique perspective. Early in his career, he started out as a soybean breeder and watched over time as his colleagues lost their ability to share germplasm and work collaboratively as the industry became increasingly privatized. Today, publicly funded breeding programs for soybeans as well as corn, cotton and other crops are virtually nonexistent and the cost farmers shell out to buy those seeds has skyrocketed.

As chairman of the National Wheat Improvement Committee four years ago, Carver helped draft “principles of collaboration,” a document intended to provide a framework for public wheat breeding programs as they negotiated with private seed companies to share germplasm and license traits. The goal was to protect the breeding investments taxpayers and farmers already made through their check-off programs and insure their genetic material wasn’t captured by private companies and sold back to them at a profit.

Despite the comprehensive industry-wide effort that went into finalizing the agreement, it has been a mixed success, in his view. “We’ve gotten away from that a little bit,” he said. “Breeding programs — especially the smaller programs — are in survival mode. Licensing their germplasm to private companies is the quickest, easiest way to bring in money.”

The National Association of Wheat Growers’ official policy supports GM wheat. “We are supportive of any research effort that will increase the yield and profitability for the farmer,” said Paul Penner, of Hillsboro, Kan., the current NAWG president. “We cannot ignore the potential benefits of GM technology in wheat.”

Penner said he wants to see farmers provided with a full range of options and then let the marketplace dictate which products succeed.

But Tim Bartram, the executive director of the Oklahoma Wheat Growers Association, said members of his association have always been cautious in their embrace of biotechnology.

“We are not against the development of GM wheat, but we don’t feel like it’s a magic bullet. It’s a tool,” he said.

However, he also pointed out the terminology surrounding biotech frequently results in confusion that hinders debate. Biotech is not synonymous with GMO, for instance.

“GM is not a good term to use as it applies to modern crops. Transgenic is the more correct term to use,” he said.

Biotech advances include marker-assisted selection, which occurs in the lab rather than in the field, speeding up the breeding process and making it more efficient. Monsanto’s seed chipper is a proprietary machine that shaves a tiny sample from a seed that can be analyzed for its genetic makeup. If the seed is promising, it can still be planted and used in a conventional breeding program, Bartram pointed out.

Wheat varieties derived from these technologies would not require a GMO label in the future if GMO labeling ever becomes widespread.

Another method that has generated considerable enthusiasm, the doubled-haploid breeding technique used by Colorado State University, OSU and countless other breeding programs, uses chromosome engineering to shortcut variety development by several years. Wheat derived from this method is not considered GMO either.

Carver said such technology “puts us on a level playing field” with crops like corn that have shorter life cycles and can produce new genetic lines more rapidly.

Still, he’s reluctant to oversell the potential benefits of even this method, saying he would only entrust a portion of his program to the doubled-haploid process.

“When you skip steps, you’re skipping something besides time,” he said. “You’re not getting the gene mixing you would normally see or the same opportunities for selection.”

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