Farmers Face Challenge to Win Acceptance of Genetically Modified Wheat
by JOSEPH BAUCUM, Reporting Texas
May 03, 2014 | 2648 views | 7 7 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Farmers Face Challenge to Win Acceptance of Genetically Modified Wheat

Wheat trials at a field day in Texas. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M AgriLife / Flickr

Wheat trials at a field day in Texas. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M AgriLife/Flickr. 

 

By Joseph Baucum

For Reporting Texas

Jack Norman knows firsthand that genetically modified corn and soybeans have increased yields and profits over the last 20 years, and he’s confident GMO wheat will have a similar impact.

Norman, who has produced corn, soybeans, and wheat for half a century at Norman Farms in Howe, north of Dallas, also understands that he and other growers face a big challenge.

Unlike corn and soybeans, of which 90 percent produced each year is genetically engineered and used for feeding livestock, most wheat is produced for human consumption. For every staunch GMO supporter, there is an equally passionate detractor wary of the health consequences of consuming genetically modified crops. People on both sides of the debate brim with conviction, and unless big agriculture can allay consumers’ fears of biotech danger, genetically modified wheat will have a hard time finding market acceptance.

Norman and other growers don’t have much time to convince consumers that GMO wheat will be safe. Monsanto, the world’s largest biotech seed company, is “several years away” from creating the first genetically modified wheat, but has made significant progress toward that reality, chief technology officer Robb Fraley said in a January conference call. Like its corn, cotton and soybeans, St. Louis-based Monsanto’s wheat would be engineered to tolerate the company’s herbicide Roundup.

Norman said that could be a game-changer for a U.S. industry that has declined in acreage and international exports over the last three decades, while other biotech crops have flourished.

“If we use biotech wheat, we know that we can use less herbicides, fewer insecticides, and we feel like we can have an operation that’s more sustainable because this allows us to plow the soils less,” Norman said. “Those are some plus sides. We feel like we can increase productivity, produce our wheat cheaper and be more competitive.”

A 2013 New York Times poll found that the American public “overwhelmingly supports” labeling foods containing GMO ingredients. Ninety-three percent of respondents said foods with GMOs should be identified, and three-quarters expressed concern over GMOs in their food, most related to long-term health effects. Norman said he thinks the public’s anxiety stems from the agriculture industry’s failure to educate consumers about the technology’s safety, especially at the grass-roots level.

“The farmers themselves have to do a better job of advocating the safety of biotech and letting the consumers know that it is safe,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has five classes of wheat: hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, white, and durum and rye. Due to the state’s climate, most Texas farmers produce winter wheat. Norman Farms grows soft red winter. Workers lay seed in November and harvest in the first week of June.

This year, Norman has planted 7,200 acres of wheat, and he said he hopes to get 70 to 80 bushels per acre. Annual revenue from wheat production fluctuates due to various circumstances, drought or freeze being the biggest culprits, but Norman said a good year would net $20 to $50 per acre. As is true statewide, his sales are split evenly between domestic and international markets. In order for his operation to be profitable, he said it is essential that consumers in both markets are receptive to biotech wheat by the time Monsanto’s newest creation is ready for commercial use.

Efforts to gain customers’ trust are occurring at the national level, according to Rodney Mosier, executive vice president of Texas Wheat Producers, which provides support and funding for wheat research and represents Texas farmers politically. The National Association of Wheat Growers, a nonprofit group, surveyed farmers in 2009 to gauge opinions on GMOs, leading to a petition supporting the commercialization of biotech wheat. It also partnered with four other wheat industry organizations and released “The Case For Biotech Wheat,” an eight-page report detailing how GMO wheat could solve competitive issues in the industry. Mosier said that is only the beginning of the outreach.

“We’ve got a long ways to go before we can get customer acceptance in the marketplace,” Mosier said.

The validity of research into the safety of GMO crops for consumption is a sticking point for both sides of the debate. GMO opponents say that companies tied to the industry pay for the studies and affect their conclusions; supporters say opponents ignore science.

The Organic Consumers Association, a public interest nonprofit based in Finland, Minn., rejects all crops that have been genetically modified to make plants resistant to herbicides and insecticides. Alexis Daden-Meyer, the organization’s political director, cited recent reports on biotechnology from the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and the American Medical Association in support of Organic Consumers’ stance, particularly the AMA’s recommendation that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration require safety assessments of foods containing GMO ingredients before they can be sold.

“These crops should have been safety-tested before we started eating them,” Daden-Meyer said. “If they had been safety-tested, we would either know that they’re safe or we would know what the harms are, but we don’t know.”

The AMA report conflicts with Daden-Meyer’s assertion. It does recommend mandatory pre-market tests, but also says, “To date, all manufacturers of bioengineered foods intended for marketing have engaged in the voluntary notification process,” which includes safety tests. The AMA also concluded there is no need for GMO labeling and that, at the moment, biotech food poses no more health risk than its traditional counterparts do.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine report, which called for a moratorium on foods with genetically modified ingredients, has also been the target of criticism. The Genetic Literacy Project, a biotech advocacy nonprofit with no financial ties to the industry, according to its website, notes that the environmental medical group is not recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialists. It also said the group used anecdotal and unsubstantiated methods to reach its conclusions.

Clark Neely is a Texas A&M University assistant professor and one of Texas’ leading agronomists, and some of his research is financed by Texas Wheat Producers. He said the disconnect between pro- and anti-GMO factions arises from distrust. He said many biotech opponents refuse to trust science-based, peer-reviewed articles on biotechnology safety and instead base their arguments on information from blog posts or websites lacking credentials.

“Until the public at large becomes more trusting of scientific research, I do not foresee a general acceptance of GMOs in the U.S.,” he said.

Texas is the third-largest U.S. wheat producer, with 3.4 million acres harvested each year, according to Texas A&M’s Agrilife Extension Service. The cash value to farmers is $288 million, and wheat generates $973 million for the economy. The next several years will be pivotal for efforts by wheat producers such as Norman as well as state and national wheat organizations to convince consumers that GMO wheat is safe. Inevitably, not everyone will be convinced, but Neely said he knows one way to settle the issue.

“If food ever became scarce enough or expensive enough, the GMO argument would fade away in the presence of empty stomachs and empty wallets,” he said.

 

About

 

Welcome to Reporting Texas, a digital media initiative from the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Reporting Texas accepts submissions from undergraduate and graduate students throughout the university, promoting engagement in the digital age of journalism.

Supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and its Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, Reporting Texas serves four primary goals: To showcase the best work of our University of Texas at Austin undergraduate and graduate students; to offer quality, multimedia reporting to local, state, and national news outlets; to experiment with new approaches in journalism education; and to combine aspects of community reporting with multimedia resources.

These efforts grow out of two previous initiatives at the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism – CapLink and the Capital News Service – in which student journalists provided free public affairs reporting to community newspapers around Texas. In that spirit, Reporting Texas offers all content free of charge to all news outlets as long as we are credited for our work.

Reporting Texas focuses on unique and often hidden stories, using text, photos, audio, and video to provide views of in-depth people and places rarely seen in the news.

If you have questions/comments about the site, please contact the Reporting Texas editor, Mark Coddington. We encourage readers to leave comments, which we reserve the right to edit.

Also, you can check us out on Twitter.

And once again, welcome to Reporting Texas!

Who Contributes to Reporting Texas

Reporting Texas supports young journalists by fostering an ethical and creative environment for graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Texas to report the news and thereby shed light on our community and our world. Our mission is supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and its Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. Reporting Texas represents a wealth of disciplines, and all students are invited to present their ideas to our editorial staff, who review and edit all submissions. We welcome reporting through traditional and novel approaches, including text, photos, slideshows, sound slides, videos and mixed media. We emphasize reporting that focuses on untold stories.

Additionally, Reporting Texas is open to mutually beneficial partnerships across a wide breadth of news outlets. For more information, please send an e-mail to the editor, Mark Coddington.

Comments
(7)
Comments-icon Post a Comment
Tracy A
|
May 05, 2014
If GMOs are so wonderfully safe for human(and animal) consumption and so undeniably awesome for the environment, more so than incredibly lucrative for the biotech companies, then why not just allow them to be labeled and let the consumers decide what they're willing to put into their bodies? Why spend billions of dollars to fight any effort to have them labeled? Why bring in the lawyers from the tobacco industry to help fight against labeling? Remember when tobacco was deemed safe? Look at how much that perspective has changed over the years.

If GMOs are so safe, why are so many countries banning them?

Wheat already has a bad rep for causing celiac disease and other health issues; I can only see consumption going down more if it becomes a GMO, so yielding more really won't help a thing.

Stop playing God and messing with our food supply. At the very least, just label GMOs! Feed the science experiments to those who want them not to the rest of us who don't.
anonymous
|
May 04, 2014
Here is the REAL DEAL..

IF YOU TRUST THE FDA,,, THAT APPROVES MEDS,,, THAT CAUSE AND KILL FOLKS EVERY DAY,, THEN, YOUR ONE OF THE SHEEPLE THAT THE METHANE GAS HAS GONE TO YOUR HEAD,,, '

IT IS A PROVEN FACT ,,, THE GOVERNMENT LIES,,,'

ENOUGH SAID!
Alex John
|
May 04, 2014
Actually James, do not listen to Wager below you, he is just a pro-industry non questioning troll who believes industry science is the only necessary science. The study you are referring to was deemed junk science for the reason that he didn't use enough test subjects. The irony of course being that it was the same sample sizes the industry used. The bid difference was that the French study lasted for 2 years instead of just 90 days which is the Industry standard.
Jane D
|
May 04, 2014
In addition there is no scientific proof that these crops produce bigger yields that is why Monsanto was forced to pull their advertising in South Africa.
Robert Wager
|
May 04, 2014
Actually I am an academic who has studied this subject for a long time. And the Seralini study was junk for a variety of reasons. here are a few from the European Food Safety Authority:

On 19 September 2012, Séralini et al. published online in the scientific journal Food and Chemical Toxicology a publication describing a 2-year feeding study in rats investigating the health effects of genetically modified (GM) maize NK603 with and without Roundup WeatherMAX® and Roundup® GT Plus alone (both are glyphosate-containing plant protection products).  EFSA was requested by the European Commission to review this publication and to identify whether clarifications are needed from the authors. EFSA notes that the Séralini et al. (2012) study has unclear objectives and is inadequately reported in the publication, with many key details of the design, conduct and analysis being omitted. Without such details it is impossible to give weight to the results. Conclusions cannot be drawn on the difference in tumour incidence between the treatment groups on the basis of the design, the analysis and the results as reported in the Séralini et al. (2012) publication. In particular, Séralini et al. (2012) draw conclusions on the incidence of tumours based on 10 rats per treatment per sex which is an insufficient number of animals to distinguish between specific treatment effects and chance occurrences of tumours in rats.  Considering that the study as reported in the Séralini et al. (2012) publication is of inadequate design, analysis and reporting, EFSA finds that it is of insufficient scientific quality for safety assessment. Therefore EFSA, concludes that the Séralini et al. study as reported in the 2012 publication does not impact the ongoing re-evaluation of glyphosate, and does not see a need to reopen the existing safety evaluation of maize NK603 and its related stacks. EFSA will give the authors of the Séralini et al. (2012) publication the opportunity to provide further information on their study to EFSA.

© European Food Safety Authority, 2012
James Arjuna
|
May 03, 2014
We have ignorant, greedy, people destroying what God has given us for food.

All the testing in France shows that rats develop cancer in 6 months then dye.

Why is that not in national news from the media paid off by rich companies like Monsanto, or drug companies who like sick people. Humans are destroying human life on earth FOREVER and never to be the same again. No health, babies dying of genetic diseases.

Cancer has risen to the number one disease killer of babies and children. It is not magic. It is poison in the human species fed by greed, lust, and power.

Google "Chilhood Invasive Cancer" and tell me how much you like GMO's and STD's and all the genetic destruction from ignorance.

Robert Wager
|
May 04, 2014
Unfortunately James you have read and believe activist literature that has been examined and dismissed as junk science. The rats paper was retracted by the journal. Here is the European National Academies if science opinion on GE crops and derived food:

"There is no validated evidence that GM crops have greater adverse impact on health and

the environment than any other technology used in plant breeding...There is compelling evidence that GM crops can contribute to sustainable development goals with benefits to farmers, consumers, the environment and the economy." EASAC 2013