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Monsanto dives into genetically modified wheat

Monsanto Co. is moving back into the business of developing genetically modified wheat, a development that the Washington Grain Alliance says will help keep wheat competitive with other food crops.

The world’s leading seed producer announced a deal Tuesday to pay $45 million to buy a Bozeman research and development business, marking the end of Monsanto’s five-year hiatus from changing the genetic structure of wheat.

Foreign buyers remain opposed to genetically modified wheat. They’re led by Japan, the largest importer of wheat grown in Washington, Idaho and Oregon.

But positions are softening and new developments need to be ready for changes in buyers’ attitudes, said Tom Mick, chief executive of the grain alliance.

“Wheat needs to be involved in technology advancements,” he said.

Mick said he expects the company’s decision to reignite competition among wheat breeders to develop varieties with higher yields, good quality and resistance to drought and diseases that force farmers to spend big money on chemicals.

“We need that. Everyone needs that,” Mick said.

Farmers were generally pleased five years ago when Monsanto shelved plans to develop a variety of genetically modified spring wheat. Japan had threatened to buy wheat elsewhere if they grew genetically modified wheat commercially.

But genetically modified corn and soybeans have since become ubiquitous in livestock feed, food products and alternative fuels. High demand for those crops has led farmers in the Midwest to dedicate less land to growing wheat.

“The U.S. wheat industry has come together to call for new technology investment, and we believe we have game-changing technologies – like our drought-tolerance and improved-yield traits – that can meaningfully address major challenges wheat growers face every season,” Carl Casale, executive vice president of Monsanto’s global strategy and operations, said in a news release.

U.S. Wheat Associates applauded Monsanto’s move as a boost during “a time when basic research into agronomic improvements to wheat is critically needed.”

In Washington about 85 percent of the annual wheat harvest is exported to Asia and Africa.

It is used to make foods such as flatbreads, cakes, cookies and noodles.

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