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Industry has change of heart

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. -- Despite the fact that most wheat farmers have welcomed the advent of biotechnology, end users have not been so supportive. The end user, especially millers and bakers, argue that the advantages gained with biotechnology wer...

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. -- Despite the fact that most wheat farmers have welcomed the advent of biotechnology, end users have not been so supportive.

The end user, especially millers and bakers, argue that the advantages gained with biotechnology were for the growers' benefit only. They made it clear that they were not interested in purchasing commodities that were genetically modified -- especially wheat. It seems now, however, that the tide may be turning. The milling and baking industry suddenly is realizing that the sky-high cost and critically short supply of wheat is directly related to the absence of efficient technologies in wheat.

Biotech advantage

Farmers, including myself, have seen huge advantages in growing biotech corn and soybeans. Many of us have reduced our wheat acres steadily in the past 10 years since biotech corn and soybeans became available. Control of pests such as corn borer, corn rootworm as well as superior weed control with Roundup Ready corn and soybeans have been welcomed with open arms wherever they have been tried.

Today, 73 percent of the corn and 91 percent of the soybean acres in the United States have one or more biotech traits.

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All this has taken place in a little more than 10 years since biotech seeds were first available to us. It's hard to justify fighting to produce wheat when it's much more efficient and profitable to produce a biotech crop.

Price shift

In 2007, the national corn yield average was 152.8 bushels per acre, 16 bushels up from just 10 years ago, largely because of biotechnology.

In contrast the national average wheat yield for 2007 was 40.6 bushels per acre, unchanged from a decade earlier. The shift away from wheat production to corn and soybeans has resulted in the highest wheat prices ever recorded in United States history at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange.

The price shock is alarming the food companies that produce bread, cereal, crackers and pasta.

At a recent meeting of the Joint Biotech Committee of U.S. Wheat Associates and the National Association of Wheat Growers, a spokesperson for the North American Millers Association said millers and pro-biotech growers are no longer at opposite poles.

A change of mind

This change of attitude was further confirmed by an excellent editorial in Milling and Baking News, a trade journal for the milling and baking industry that is heralded not only nationally but throughout the world.

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Its editorial titled "Huge Price Paid for Opposition to Biotechnology" reveals some sobering admissions on the part of millers and bakers. The article states that they have been "day-dreaming" and that their opposition was based largely on "unproven fears about how consumers will react to foods made from bioengineered crops."

In conclusion, the editorial stated that "costs and prices like those registered this year in wheat ought to awaken opponents of biotechnology to realize how greatly their stance is costing themselves and the economy."

Catching up

Unfortunately, biotech in wheat has a lot of catching up to do. Companies that were willing to invest in wheat have moved their research focus to more accepting crops.

Though corn and soybean producers can look forward to additional biotech traits that are soon to be released, no such optimism exists for wheat. It now appears, however, that a new ally is emerging and ready to accept our efficiently grown U.S. wheat.

Hopefully, we producers who have reduced or eliminated wheat altogether can look forward to once again placing wheat back into our rotation. o

Editor's Note: Aasness, who farms near Fergus Falls, Minn., is a board member of Growers for Biotechnology.

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