Canadian Wheat Board cautious about GM wheat

SASKATOON, Saskatchewan (Reuters) - The Canadian Wheat Board won’t support genetically modified wheat until key conditions are in place, including assurances that its overseas markets would accept the crop.

“We know that this is potentially the wave of the future but right now we’re just not there,” said Maureen Fitzhenry, spokeswoman for the Wheat Board, which holds a government-granted monopoly on sales of Western Canada’s wheat and barley.

Consumers in Europe and Japan are wary of genetically modified foods, although the European Union recently accepted GM canola seed from Canada.

The Wheat Board, which opposed Monsanto Co’s application for a herbicide-tolerant GM wheat in 2004, would also want to see a greater benefit, such as resistance to fusarium disease or improved yield and quality, Fitzhenry said. At present, there’s no way to effectively segregate GM wheat from non-GM wheat, which would be another condition the board would want satisfied, she said.

Some farm groups from the top wheat-exporting nations of the United States, Canada and Australia have agreed to support synchronized commercialization of genetically modified wheat. The agreement, announced on Thursday by the National Association of Wheat Growers, is an attempt to align the countries against any international backlash if GM wheat is introduced and to invite seed development companies to press ahead with biotech wheat development.

Most Western Canadian farmers support a cautious approach to GM wheat, Fitzhenry said.

“Farmers don’t want to lose a key market opportunity due to customers’ resistance of GMOs (genetically modified organisms).”

GM wheat would be unpopular with many of Canada’s overseas markets, said Jerry Klassen, an independent grain analyst.

“This is a blind decision (by the farmer groups) without talking to the customer first,” he said.

GM strains of corn and soybeans, which resist pests and tolerate herbicides, dominate the U.S. market, creating concern that wheat isn’t staying competitive with other crops.

But farmers have improved production practices in the past decade and new wheat varieties have developed that prove there are ways to improve yields without altering the plant’s genes, Klassen said.

Genetically modifying wheat might produce certain benefits but that doesn’t ensure it will respond the same way to baking processes, he said. Spring wheat is used in flour, while durum wheat is grown for pasta.

Monsanto Co, a leading producer of GM crop seed, is not currently developing GM wheat varieties but the company has noticed a change in farmers’ attitudes, said spokeswoman Trish Jordan.

“We’re encouraged by the support industry growers are showing by this statement for biotech investment in wheat,” she said. “If the market conditions were right, there may be some opportunity for us to re-enter the wheat space.”

One of the drawbacks to spending research and development dollars on wheat is that farmers tend to reuse their own seed, unlike canola growers who buy new seed every year. That’s a profitability issue that farmers could address by agreeing under contract not to reuse seed, Jordan said.

The government registration process in Canada would take years and include feedback from a committee that includes farm groups and the Wheat Board.

Editing by Rob Wilson