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GM Wheat: Segregation Impossible

OKLAHOMA CITY - As acres planted in wheat continue to dwindle against more profitable crops in Oklahoma and across the country, farmers need to decide whether they're ready to fight back with biotechnology, the National Association of Wheat Growers is asking.

"The average producer is in favor of GMOs," or genetically modified organisms, said Jeff Krehbiel, chairman of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission.

"As a producer, you always look at cost of production first, and then ease of management and profit potential. When you add all of those together, there have been incidences in the last few years that other crops have been more profitable   due to genetically modified crops."

But the industry's path isn't without risk - even though grain can be genetically tweaked to improve its vigor, make it easier to harvest or exhibit other traits leading to larger, more consistent yields, some countries may not allow a biotech-modified import, he said. "So I am also a firm believer that we have to look at all of the ramifications GMOs introduce," Krehbiel said.

Oklahoma, like the rest of the country, has seen the number of wheat acres drop. In 1985, about 7.8 million acres were planted to wheat in Oklahoma; by 2007 that figure had dropped to 5.9 million, according to state Agriculture Department statistics.

Several large companies are interested in adopting wheat strains modified with biotechnology to improve their market positions, the national wheat association reported. And the NAWG also plans to meet soon with Australian and Canadian wheat growers regarding the development of a time line for biotech wheat. But the commercialization of a newly engineered trait is expected to take 10 years and about $150 million for its development, deregulation and launch. So the sooner the survey is conducted, the better.

"These companies rightfully want to know before they undertake such an endeavor that producers want the choice of biotech tools in the wheat variety toolbox and will do what is necessary to obtain that access," NAWG officials said.

Several U.S. consumer groups have raised objections to GMO products across many ag industries, not just wheat. But the bigger problem lies overseas. South Korea and Japan, for example, have resisted biotech crops and require extensive labeling of such products. The Chinese Agriculture Ministry has already approved some modified crops, including corn and soybeans, but still requires safety reviews.

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