Growers in U.S., Canada, Australia back GMO wheat

KANSAS CITY, Mo., May 14 (Reuters) - Farm groups from the world’s top wheat-exporting nations on Thursday said they had reached an agreement to support a “synchronized” commercialization of biotech traits in wheat.

Though any market roll-out of a genetically altered wheat would be years away, the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) said Thursday it had signed up grain growers in Canada and Australia in a deal that would align the nations against any international backlash if and when a biotech wheat was introduced.

The united front also was intended as an invitation to biotech companies to push forward with biotech wheat development.

“This is a big, long-term issue for producers,” said NAWG CEO Daren Coppock. “We agree it is in our best interest to work together. And we are trying to send a strong signal to developers so they can move ahead.”

The key food crop currently lacks any genetically altered seed options, unlike corn and soybeans, which have been tinkered with by a variety of biotech agricultural companies.

Biotech strains of corn and soybeans that resist pests and tolerate herbicide field treatments now dominate the U.S. market and are growing in share around the world.

Wheat farmers who have eyed advancements made in other crops say similar genetically altered opportunities for wheat could help them increase yields and become more profitable.

Tops on the wish list are drought-tolerant wheat and wheat that makes more efficient use of nitrogen.

“Wheat is not keeping pace with corn and soy yield increases,” said North Dakota Grain Growers Association president Byron Richard. “We have to be competitive with other commodities.”

In addition to NAWG, the groups signing onto the agreement include U.S. Wheat Associates, the North American Millers’ Association, the Grain Growers of Canada, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association and the Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission. Australian signatories include Grains Council of Australia, Grain Growers Association and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia.

It was five years ago this month that Monsanto Co MON.N. shelved an herbicide-tolerant "Roundup Ready" wheat that would have been the first biotech wheat in the world.

The company was facing a storm of protest from U.S. wheat buyers, who threatened to boycott all U.S. wheat if a biotech strain was rolled out. Growers and export players feared a loss of customers and shied away from backing the plan.

Discussions about genetically altering wheat remain sensitive in many parts of the world, including major export markets in Europe and Asia. Biotech crop critics argue genetically altering crops, particularly those used for food, can have harmful ramifications on human and animal health and on the environment.

Still, acceptance is growing, said wheat growers.

“There are a lot of benefits that come with biotech wheat -- higher production, less reliance on pesticides, and better quality wheat,” said Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association president Kevin Bender. “Acceptance is growing for it.” (Reporting by Carey Gillam; editing by Jim Marshall)