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Published July 20, 2009, 02:00 AM

Monsanto buys WestBred as biotech wheat platform

FARGO, N.D. — Calling it a “sea change” in wheat genetics development, Monsanto on July 14 announced it has acquired WestBred L.L.C., a regional wheat genetics company based in Bozeman, Mont.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Calling it a “sea change” in wheat genetics development, Monsanto on July 14 announced it has acquired WestBred L.L.C., a regional wheat genetics company based in Bozeman, Mont.

Carl Casale, Monsanto’s executive vice president, sayss the company will use techniques it has developed for other core crops — especially monocots such as corn — to develop conventional and marker-assisted varieties on perhaps a five- or six-year timetable.

Starting point

Those varieties, in turn, will serve as a platform for developing biotech traits in wheat on perhaps a 10-year timetable.

Casale says Monsanto won’t start with herbicide tolerance as it did with a Roundup Ready spring wheat effort that was shelved in 2004 because of industry and market concerns about GMO traits. North Dakota, one of the major producers of spring wheat, usually a high-protein wheat used for blending to make better quality breads, was one of the battleground states, as some producers and marketers feared rejection in foreign markets.

“Monsanto will explore herbicide-tolerant and disease-resistant biotech traits, but the company does not plan to include further development of the first-generation Roundup Ready trait in wheat,” the company says.

The company will include a Wheat Development Advisory Group to help it develop the new technology, made up of representatives up and down the wheat value chain. Casale says that group will be gathered in the next several months.

This time around, Casale says Monsanto will begin with building varieties that have drought tolerance and improved nitrogen uptake — both concerns in the more westerly areas where wheat has migrated as it has been displaced by row crops. He says the traits will be applicable across a broad spectrum for wheat, for which spring wheat is only a small part.

Numbers roller coaster

Casale used the oft-quoted example that Cass County, N.D., has seen a 212 percent increase in soybeans while it has seen a 59 percent decline in wheat acres in the past several years. This is partly a result of the advent of shorter-season soybean varieties, but also to the Roundup Ready technology.

Nationally, U.S. wheat production declined from a peak of 88.3 million acres in 1981 to ’82. After government policy changes, the acreage dropped to 77 million acres in 1990 to ’91. It now is 58.6 million acres in 2009.

At the same time, global demand is increasing and is expected to be up 35 percent from current levels by 2030, Casale says.

He says some of the opposition to biotech wheat has been whipped away by wild grain price fluctuations and the resulting short supplies.

In response to a question from a Manitoba journalist, Casale says there is no immediate plan to expand its efforts into Canada. He says WestBred has focused on the U.S. market where increasing acceptance of biotech wheat was signaled by a joint committee between U.S. Wheat Associates and the National Association of Wheat Growers, which both are focused on U.S. interests.

Teaming up

Casale says Monsanto is “open to ongoing conversations with any country that wants the benefit of technology,” but has no immediate plans to expand into Canada.

Casale declines to say just what herbicides or diseases any new transgenic wheat might target, saying it is secondary to the drought-resistance and nutrient uptake traits. He says many of the geographies where wheat is grown are “challenged by water availability.”

Casale says a set of land grant universities recently moved to protect their intellectual properties through enforcement of the Plant Variety Protection Act. He says WestBred sells certified seed and that business model works well for them.

Casale acknowledges that the vast majority of wheat germ plasm has evolved from the public sector. He says they’ve “done a nice job with the limited resources they have,” but now need to assert their property rights to continue innovation.

“We would be following that trend that the public sector has initiated, not the other way around,” he says.

With relatively small research investments from private companies, and shrinking federal and state funding, public wheat research has fallen behind.

On July 13, the day before the acquisition announcement, the South Dakota Board of Regents, the governing body for South Dakota State University in Brookings, says it instituted five lawsuits against producers who they say illegally offered wheat seed for sale that was protected by the Plant Variety Protection Act.