Jan 8 (Reuters) - Monsanto Co, the world's largest seed company, said Wednesday it was making good progress on development of an herbicide-tolerant wheat, pushing what would be the world's first biotech wheat a step closer to market.
Monsanto is already a leading developer of biotech corn, soybeans and other crops and the company has long tried to bring to market a wheat genetically altered to tolerate 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 the company 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.
The company is progressing on work to make crops more drought-hardy, and more pest- and disease resistant. It is also working on a new combination of biotech crops and herbicide chemistry to control weeds that have become resistant to its Roundup herbicide.
The company has a new insect-protected, Roundup Ready sugarcane in the works, and is advancing research on improved tomatoes, lettuce and peppers.
It is 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. The company also sees microbials as helping improve the health of bees, which are crucial to pollination of many crops.