Skepticism over potential benefits of GMO wheat

My colleague (and chief wheat breeder) at Oklahoma State University was recently interviewed by Ag Journal, and he expressed reservations about GMO wheat.  

A few snippets:

“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

The wheat "lagging behind" argument is one that appeared in my co-authored New York Times editorial on the subject.  To be sure this is a complicated issue and there are many factors at play including climate, government policies (particularly ethanol policies), drought, falling cattle inventory, interest rates, and technological advancement (including biotechnology), just to name a few.  Carver is right that the trend is not due solely (or perhaps even mainly) to biotechnology.  But, might it be one small part of the picture?

One should probably be careful about comparing yield of apples and oranges (or wheat and corn).  So, let's move away from discussions about yield, and look at farmer planting decisions. What do farmers decide to do with their land. The data are pretty clear that acreage allocations have moved against wheat over the past decade.  Here, for example, is USDA-NASS data on the number of acres planted to wheat since the mid 1990s (when GE corn and soy came on the market).

To look at it a bit differently, here is the % of planted acres in Oklahoma allocated to wheat over the past 10 years (this is the wheat % out of other major crops that include canola, corn, sorghum, soybeans, and wheat).


Some of this change is due to government policies.  Some may be due to climate change.  Some may be due to changes relative prices.  Some may be do falling cattle numbers (a lot of the wheat in OK is planted to feed stocker cattle).  But, some may also be due to differences in seed technologies available and benefits they provide beyond yield.  As the story indicates:

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

I agree, it is more than just about yield.  Convenience, risk reduction, and time saved also factor into planting decisions, and I suspect producers are willing to pay something for yield protection.   

Ultimately, I don't think "competitive disadvantage" of wheat (to the extent one exists) is the key reason to think about GMO wheat.  After all, if a farmer doesn't allocate their ground to wheat, they're likely to allocate it to a different crop (in recent years in Oklahoma that has been Canola - GMO and non-GMO).  What we care about are not crops but farmers and consumers.

Carver discusses a lot of interesting developments in wheat breeding and genetics that are worth pursing (do see the whole article).   Many of these are likely to bring about farmer and consumer benefits.  

Carver's chief complaint with biotechnology (aside from over-sold benefits) seems to be the following:

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.”

One of the huge costs is that related to regulatory burden associated with creating and commercializing seeds made with GM technologies relative to other breeding technologies.  That sounds to me like good motivation to work on attempts to bring down the regulatory costs associated with genetic engineering.  It also suggests a need to work on public opposition with scientific communication on the health and environmental aspects of genetic engineering.  It also makes me wonder if activist pressures might eventually bring molecular breeding techniques under a similar regulatory umbrella that now drives up the cost of commercializing GM.

Ultimately, Carver may be right.  New molecular breeding technologies and other advancements may circumvent the need for "GMOs" - at least as they're currently defined by the public and by regulators - and these advancements may indeed be less costly and invite less public scorn.  I'm certainly proud to work at a University with scientists like Carver working on those issues. 

In the end, however, I find it hard to see why we would want to block farmers' access to biotechnology.  If a company (or University) can create and commercialize a GMO wheat (and I suspect that day isn't far off, as there are many in development), farmers will have the choice to decide for themselves whether the promise has been oversold.  Clearly, the vast majority of corn, soybean, and cotton farmers believe enough in the merits of GMOs to pay a premium for them.  Maybe wheat farmers will have a different experience, and GMO wheat will fail the market test.  We'll never know until one is introduced.