Monsanto sees "right time" for GMO wheat

ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Monsanto Co could start field testing genetically modified wheat within one to two years, but remains cautious about future commercialization, according to one of the company’s top wheat technology executives.

Six years after shelving an earlier biotech wheat product in the face of stiff market resistance, Monsanto still sees a need for circumspection, but believes building acceptance and a need for increased food production makes the wheat seed market potentially lucrative over the long term.

Currently there is no biotech wheat on the market because of consumer and food industry opposition, but Monsanto sees attitudes changing.

“I wouldn’t say we’re jumping in with two feet,” said Claire CaJacob, Monsanto’s global wheat technology lead executive, in an interview with Reuters. “But I wouldn’t say we’re tentative. We have traits that make more sense. It’s the right time.”

Several rival seed companies including Syngenta, BASF and others are also working on developing genetically modified wheat but Monsanto is the world’s largest seed company and its work is closely watched worldwide.

Monsanto aims to use genetic modification to develop a higher yielding and more drought and stress-tolerant crop. This year’s drought in eastern Europe that decimated the Russian wheat crop only underscores the need for improvements in wheat, said CaJacob. The drought caused U.S. wheat and European wheat futures prices to nearly double in just two months.

Monsanto’s wheat research is still in the early “Phase 1” of discovery work, which translates to testing various genes to see what might work. Both U.S. wheat farmers and Australian growers are the early target market.

The company’s work to develop a drought-tolerant corn is helping with the research into wheat, she said, but wheat is a much more complicated plant, and it could be one to two years before the company starts field testing and a decade before a product is brought to market, according to CaJacob.

“We are in the stage of seeing if we have any genes that work,” said CaJacob. “Until you take it to the field you don’t know.”

Monsanto abandoned biotech wheat in May 2004 amid broad opposition from buyers of U.S. wheat and from U.S. wheat growers who feared losing sales. The company announced it was restarting wheat research last year, paying $45 million for the WestBred LLC seed germplasm company.

CaJacob said the company was examining various pricing strategies for a future wheat seed product, including questions about whether farmers would continue to be able to save their seed, a common practice by U.S. wheat farmers.

Saving seed is not allowed for farmers buying Monsanto’s patented corn and soybean seed technology.

Monsanto is also striving to develop a product line of improved wheat hybrids, using molecular markers that speed up traditional breeding techniques.

“When you hear Monsanto and wheat it doesn’t necessarily mean biotech,” she said.

Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Lisa Shumaker