GM Wheat In Siberia? Getting Agricultural Biotech Right Continues to Be a Challenge

wheatfus I am not a member of the flat Earth Society.  When it comes to new technology, especially computer technology I like to think that I’m as far out there you can get.  However when it comes to agricultural biotechnology and the changes we’ve seen over the past few years in our fields I think some people like to label me a Luddite.  So when I saw the online debate this past week regarding genetically modified wheat, I chimed in with my opinions about the big corporate giants who have brought biotechnology to the farm.

For those of you who read this column regularly you’ll know that I have never been a big booster of some of the agricultural biotechnology forged upon the agricultural market.  Other than corn, which is totally different, I’ve always felt that much of the agricultural biotechnology brought to the farm gate over the last 10-15 years has been snake oil.  To me it is always been a question of economics and when it came to soybeans none of the biotechnology injected into the soybean plant made much sense to me.  However, it sold a lot of spray.

At the end of the day agricultural biotechnology in soybeans in my mind has been a net negative to North American soybean farmers.  Yes I once had visions of science fiction where I imagined I could spray a soybean field with glyphosate.  For instance I remember the first field I ever saw, I was so excited I turned my car around and drove down a gravel road to see it. I couldn’t imagine a soybean field sprayed with glyphosate.

That soybean field was nondescript; it frankly didn’t look much different than any other field other than it was clean.  That was a good thing and for growers who had trouble keeping fields clean or had rotational issues, the advance of glyphosate resistant soybeans had its place.  However and it’s a big however those new biotech soybeans have never quite measured up against their older more old-fashioned bin run varieties.  Of course the greater consumer market didn’t want them and we ended up with a segmented soybean market where some producers are actually cashing in on greater revenues from soybeans which were developed 10-15 years ago. In the great agricultural technological future debate, it never quite added up.

We can debate that forever, however I think the general feeling in soybean country is “beans still lag behind corn “when it comes to yield potential.  So at least for today let’s leave it there.  The news last week was industry group from Australia Canada and the United States calling for renewed look at genetically modified wheat.

From my agricultural economic perch in the fields of southwestern Ontario the optics of that would be a nightmare from a practical perspective.  Each spring in this part of Canada farmers are faced with burning down volunteer wheat in order to plant their soybeans and in some cases their corn.  For instance you could make the argument volunteer wheat is everywhere and if it was genetically modified the question would be how do you kill it?  It would be a lot more expensive and you would have the biotech police spooks working overtime.

Of course the reality is not everybody agrees with me and thank goodness for that.  Proponents of modern-day biotech would say genetically modified wheat would increase yields, reduce costs for farmers and is just what the world wants.  The increased yields part of that equation is what farmers want but whether that would happen I don’t know.  As long as farmers are able to reach into the bin and clean their seed for another year we will always run into the same problems that biotech soybeans have versus hybrid biotech corn.  At the end of the day it’s always about good agricultural economics and nothing else when it comes to the adoption of these new technologies.

My good friends in the seed corn industry tell me that new biotechnology will ultimately mean I’ll be getting 300 bushels per acre corn!  Well at first glance I say bring it on!  We’ve got a 1.6 billion bushel corn ending stock in the United States this year, if I started getting 300 bushels per acre what would it be then?  Also too, would anhydrous ammonia be $2000 a ton and MAP $2500 a ton?  I dunno.

In the world today there is seemingly wheat everywhere, in fact I read a report the other day that Russia and the states in the former Soviet Union would like to make a “grain corridor ” in the Black Sea area because those countries have great wheat growing potential.  Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov said, “We are planning to increase supplies of grain to the Asia-Pacific region with the creation of a “grain corridor.” He said this would not only help meet demand in growing Asian markets but also help boost agricultural production in Siberia.

Siberia?   Do we really need GM wheat?  I don’t think so but clearly it’s coming and that means more market segmentation and more problems and more pulling our hair out.  With a litany of different legal jurisdictions across this “grain corridor” you can bet that the legal requirement for GM wheat will be just as shaky as it is for GM soybeans in South America.

How to deal with that?  Remember what I said at the end of the day it’s all about good “agricultural economics “. That is you find what profitability works on your farm and go with it.  If the biotech gods ever get it right and work on something to improve human health or make crops more functional for the food they are processed into we might be on the right track.  However to me the biotech waters are getting even murkier.  GM wheat would be the ultimate calamity.  That’s one opinion, but thankfully there are many more.