By Carey Gillam
Jan 8 (Reuters) - Monsanto Co, the world's largest seed company, said Wednesday it was making good progress on the development of a herbicide-tolerant wheat, pushing what would be the world's first biotech wheat a step closer to market.
Monsanto, a leading developer of biotech corn, soybeans and other crops, has long tried to bring to market a genetically altered wheat that tolerates spraying of glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.
"The grain industry and the wheat industry ... have remained very interested and supportive of biotech advances," said Monsanto Chief Technology Officer Robb Fraley in a conference call. "A wheat farmer is also generally a corn and soybean farmer and they understand the benefits of the technology."
Fraley said while Monsanto continues to make advances, it is still "several years away" from a biotech wheat product launch.
Biotech wheat is not commercially available despite several companies having researched it for a number of years.
Monsanto shelved an earlier version of an experimental herbicide-tolerant wheat, called "Roundup Ready," in 2004 amid widespread market concern foreign buyers would boycott U.S. wheat if it were genetically altered like corn and soybeans.
Controversy erupted again in May when the U.S. Department of Agriculture said an Oregon farmer had found the Roundup Ready genetically engineered wheat growing in his field, despite the fact the experimental grain should have been destroyed or stored away.
South Korea and Japan immediately temporarily halted purchases of U.S. wheat after the announcement, due to fears the unapproved biotech wheat might have contaminated U.S. wheat supplies.
Several farmers sued Monsanto, accusing the company of failing to protect the U.S. wheat market from contamination by its unauthorized grain. The USDA said it determined the Oregon find was an isolated situation.
Monsanto has acknowledged some continuing market hurdles, but said attitudes were changing.
Officials said Wednesday the herbicide-tolerant wheat performed well enough in field testing to move from the "proof of concept" phase to early development work.
The project is one of 29 Monsanto said made "phase advancements" across many research and development platforms.
In addition to its wheat developments, Monsanto said it was progressing on work to make crops more drought-hardy, and more pest- and disease resistant. It was also working on a new combination of biotech crops and herbicide chemistry to control weeds that have become resistant to its Roundup herbicide.
That new "Xtend" herbicide-tolerant cropping system incorporates a chemistry combination of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, and the herbicide dicamba.
Monsanto, which said it sees a global market opportunity of more than 100 million acres for its "Xtend" system, is racing against its rivals to roll out systems that encourage farmers to use herbicide-tolerant crops with specific herbicides.
The company said it was also advancing research on improved tomatoes, lettuce and peppers.
It was also pushing ahead on what it calls "biologicals" - a platform using microbials in ways that can make plants more resistant to disease and insects, and improve yields.
Its sees its work in biologicals helping improve the health of bees, which are crucial to pollination of many crops.