US millers, bakers urge caution in GMO wheat work

by Carey Gillam

  • Genetically altered wheat seen inevitable
  • Bakers, millers want more involvement in GMO wheat work
  • Alongside Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont also eyes GMO wheat

CHICAGO, May 4 (Reuters) - As seed developers around the world work to develop a genetically modified wheat, U.S. millers and bakers - formerly staunch opponents of such efforts - are offering their support, but insisting they need to be more involved before any biotech wheat is brought to market.

Reluctance by U.S. consumers and foreign buyers to accept a genetically altered wheat in their bread, crackers and other foods, remains a critical concern, milling and baking leaders said on Tuesday.

To help broaden acceptance, a new GMO wheat needs to include nutritional improvements for consumers and/or improving milling and baking characteristics, according to Hayden Wands, director of procurement at Sara Lee Corp SLE.N and an official of the American Bakers Association.

“We’re not one hundred percent convinced that our customers will go for a GMO wheat unless it has enhanced characteristics,” Wands told a gathering of agriculture and technology industry players at the Biotechnology Industry Organization convention in Chicago.

“We would like to see them a little more specialized and a little more customer focused than just yield focused,” Wands said. “The customers are going to rule and we are going to follow their demands.”

North American Millers’ Association chairman John Miller told the convention attendees that technology developers need to let millers and bakers participate in testing and helping refine end products to help ensure acceptance, but so far the developers have shown little such interest.

Miller said availability of quality wheat supplies at affordable prices were key concerns as wheat acreage in the United States is in steady decline.

Monsanto MON.N, a leading developer of corn and soybeans genetically altered to tolerate herbicide treatments and resist pests, backed away from a plan to launch an herbicide-tolerant “Roundup Ready” spring wheat in 2004 amid an outpouring of opposition. Currently no biotech wheat is grown on a commercial scale anywhere in the world due to opposition from consumers and food industry players.

But Monsanto said last year it would restart its biotech wheat effort to focus on making wheat plants more drought tolerant, more efficient in the use of nitrogen and higher yielding.

In addition, researchers in Australia, Dow AgroSciences, a unit of Dow Chemical DOW.N AgroSciences, Syngenta SYNN.VX, Limagrain, and others have said they are researching genetic improvements for wheat, but it will likely be at least several years before any commercial products are available.

DuPont group vice president James Borel, who oversees DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred seed business, said on Tuesday DuPont was edging into biotech wheat development as well, but it would be a slow process.

U.S. wheat acres have been declining in recent years as farmers shift to more profitable crops.

(Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Marguerita Choy)