Q: What wheat products does Monsanto currently offer to farmers? What products can farmers expect to see soon?
A: Certified WestBred varieties are sold and marketed through a nationwide network of more than 100 professional, licensed seed companies or “Associates.” These varieties were developed by WestBred breeders and advanced through years of rigorous testing focused on enhancing yield, quality and other performance characteristics.
In 2009, the WestBred program began incorporating marker-assisted and other leading-edge breeding technologies that Monsanto has developed and deployed with notable success in the improvement of other row crops. The breeding team expects these tools will rapidly increase the rate of genetic gain in wheat germplasm and deliver significantly better-yielding, elite varieties to growers within several years.
Longer term, these seeds will also serve as the foundation for the development of new biotechnology traits. Within 10 to 15 years, it is possible that wheat growers will have access to traits currently in Monsanto’s R&D pipeline such as improved yield, drought tolerance and reduced fertilizer (nitrogen) use.
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Q: When will Monsanto's biotech wheat products be available for farmers to plant?
A: Building on our previous experience with wheat and corn, biotech products in wheat could be available to farmers within 10 to 15 years. Right now, we are focused on identifying the traits that can offer significant value to farmers. And, once a trait is identified and proven, it will likely take 8 to 10 years to thoroughly test the technology, as well as complete the necessary safety and agronomic tests prior to commercializing the product.
Monsanto’s Pipeline Phases (.pdf 1.5M)
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Q: Where can I find more information about the wheat industry's position on biotechnology?
A: In recent years, there has been growing acceptance about the need for technology investment in wheat in order to meet future demands. In 2009, wheat organizations in the United States, Canada and Australia outlined their support for more efficient, sustainable and profitable production of wheat around the world – including their thoughts on the commercialization of biotechnology in wheat. This Trilateral Statement of Support, as well as research and other information on the wheat industry’s position on biotechnology, can be found on the National Association of Wheat Growers Web site.
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Q: What benefits will wheat technologies – breeding or biotechnology – provide to farmers or consumers?
A: Breeding technologies include a mixture of classic techniques and modern computer- and technology-assisted processes that help breeders identify and select the best germplasm, consequently developing elite wheat varieties faster and with greater accuracy than ever before. Breeding technologies typically allow farmers to get more potential production from their fields.
Biotechnology, on the other hand, identifies and applies specific beneficial genetic traits that enhance a plant’s characteristics, such as herbicide tolerance for enhanced weed control or protection from the effects of drought, certain insects or diseases. For example, given the geographies where the crop is grown, wheat is particularly challenged by water availability, and we believe we have traits in our pipeline that can help wheat growers meaningfully address this challenge. Another example of a trait of interest is nitrogen use efficiency.
Regardless of the technology used, the benefits include greater profitability for farmers; more desirable milling and baking qualities for the food supply chain; a more consistent supply of wheat which helps stabilize prices for wheat buyers and consumers; and increased sustainability through the reduced input of resources.
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Q: Why can't the desired traits – like dought- or stress-tolerance or improved-yield traits – simply be achieved through conventional breeding?
A: No matter where wheat is farmed in the world, the crop is routinely challenged by a number of agronomic and environmental factors. Some of these factors include insects, disease and weather. We believe breeding can play a key role in meeting some of these challenges.
Plant breeding programs are typically structured to test new products over a number of locations and years before the product is ultimately commercialized for farmers. This testing regime enables plant breeders to select for a number of various stresses including drought, and to select for increased yield. Conventional selection for these types of traits is very difficult because of the genetic complexity presented by these types of traits.
As a result, some of these factors may only be addressed and/or could be addressed more comprehensively through plant biotechnology. Today, biotechnology is commonly used in other crops to significantly accelerate the progress plant breeders are able to achieve by identifying, enhancing and deploying key genes addressing these productivity issues.
Example: European Corn Borer – Breeding and Biotechnology
One example of the application of both breeding and biotechnology can be found in corn research. For years, plant breeders and researchers worked to combat a devastating insect that limited the harvestable output of corn on-farm. The insect, called the European Corn Borer, bores its way into a corn stalk and carves out the middle of the stalk, severely damaging the plant. The insect damage results in lower grain yields and/or in the corn plant falling to the ground, making the grain difficult to harvest.
Farmers and plant breeders tried to combat this pest with control methods such as plant breeding and insecticide applications. Plant breeders were never able to deliver a breeding approach that could consistently deploy resistance to this insect across a broad range of hybrids in order to thoroughly combat the pest or stop it from ruining corn yields, season after season.
Insecticide sprays were also routinely applied to control this pest. However, to be effective, insecticides must come in contact with the corn borer. One drawback of this approach was the insect was often able to bore inside the plant before or after the insecticide application, resulting in marginal control of the pest and corn yield losses.
Ultimately, plant biotechnology research proved to be the best on-farm approach to combating the pest. The technology, also known as Bt corn, provided farmers with an in-seed and in-plant approach to combating the insect and protecting their harvest. Today, farmers around the world use the Bt corn technology to protect on-farm yields on more than 22 million hectares, or more than 50 million acres, annually.
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Q: Does the company expect wheat farmers will still be allowed to save their seed, or will they now be required to purchase new seed each season?
A: In the short term, we do not expect our investment will change any of the approaches currently in place across the wheat seed industry. Today, a number of varieties can be saved on an annual basis. Likewise, a number of commercially available wheat varieties are also protected by public and private developers through the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) and patents, and can only be used to plant one crop.
WestBred varieties are sold as certified seed, and our wheat breeders use both the Plant Variety Protection (PVPA) as well as patents to support their breeding innovations. A wheat farmer’s investment in WestBred varieties helps to return dollars back to the company, which, in turn, invests those dollars into further research for the farm.
A June 2009 article in the Salina Journal profiled steps Kansas State University was taking to raise awareness about the importance of the PVPA. DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred division also posts facts about its patented wheat varieties on its web site.
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Q: Why did the company exit its wheat biotech research in 2004?
A: Monsanto exited the wheat business in 2004 due to the dramatic decline of planted spring wheat acreage as well as, in large part, due to a lack of industry alignment for the company’s technology being applied to wheat. At that time, we decided to defer efforts to develop Roundup Ready® wheat in order to focus on and accelerate the development of new and improved traits in corn, cotton and oilseeds. This was a business decision based on the economics of bringing this particular product to market at that time relative to alternative investments that were more attractive.
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