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Biotech Giants Move Once Again to Force Controversial Genetically Engineered Wheat on the Market

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The time is right for a renewed push for biotech wheat, leading US wheat industry players said this week, as tight world wheat supplies and high prices underscore strong global demand for the key food crop.

 "We in the wheat industry are wanting to re-engage. We sure see the need for that technology," said Joseph Kejr, chairman of the joint biotechnology committee of the National Association of Wheat Growers and US Wheat Associates, which markets US wheat to the world.

"The technology has been good for other commodities, cheapening production and increasing yields," Kejr said. "We need to be able to hurry up the process for wheat."

US wheat prices have soared to historic high levels in the past few weeks, with futures prices nearing US$10 a bushel, up from about US$4.50 a year ago. The price hike is tied to crop shortfalls in many key producing nations, which has triggered a scramble around the world for adequate supplies of the bread-making grain.

Wheat industry players say they have warned for years that wheat acres were in decline because a lack of technology to deal with troubling weather, weeds and disease. And years of reluctance by wheat buyers to embrace genetically modified wheat has made any immediate help impossible, say technology providers.

There are still many hurdles to acceptance of biotech wheat, but industry leaders expressed fresh hope that the current squeeze can generate acceptance for gene technology that could make wheat more profitable for farmers to grow and thus more plentiful.

"Maybe the world will be more accepting of biotech wheat now," said Darrell Hanavan, executive director of the Colorado Wheat Growers Association and past chairman of the biotech wheat committee. "The world situation is very tight."

The US Agriculture Department on Oct. 12 projected that global wheat stocks would fall to 32-year lows by the end of the 2007/08 marketing year, at 107 million tonnes. US wheat ending stocks for 2007/08 were projected at 307 million bushels, the lowest since 1948/49.

"The market is getting what it had coming," said Allan Skogen, a North Dakota farmer and biotech proponent.

The US wheat industry was sharply divided five years ago over Monsanto Co's efforts to commercialize a GMO wheat that tolerated treatments of its Roundup herbicide.

Key foreign wheat trading partners and many domestic food companies warned they would not buy biotech wheat because of consumer health and safety concerns, and Monsanto ultimately shelved its biotech wheat plans in 2004.

Since then any advancement in biotech wheat has been sluggish at best. Monsanto competitor Syngenta has in its pipeline a spring wheat that is resistant to fusarium disease.

But Syngenta spokeswoman Anne Burt said the wheat was "not on a commercial path" at this point and Syngenta was focused on achieving market acceptance.

Many wheat players were looking toward Australia, where BASF was in the early stages of researching drought-resistant wheat varieties. But that project is likely several years from commercialization as well.

"It's moving forward, but we're not in a position where anything is at the point where we're talking about commercialization," said BASF spokeswoman Fran Castle.

Indeed, it will likely take cooperation between Australia, Canada and the United States, all major world wheat suppliers, to achieve biotech wheat acceptance and commercialization, said National Association of Wheat Growers CEO Daren Coppock.

"I think we're getting closer," he said.