Julie Borlaug speaks out on wheat research, world hunger
“What’s happened over the years is that in the U.S., wheat has not been looked upon as a high staple crop like corn and soybeans,” Rich said.
He identified lower costs of molecular markers and the ability to find them more rapidly, allowing “speed breeding” to bring greater yields, as the positive things that have driven the investment into cereal grains such as wheat.
“I think it has largely been customer-driven – seedsmen and farmer driven,” Barnett said. “We’ve seen the demand for wheat yields to be increased. Farmers have long been asking,“Why am I still getting the same wheat yields my grandfather got while my corn yields have tripled?”
Perry said the industry has learned a lot of tricks from corn, soybeans, cotton and canola that can be applied to wheat.
Currently, there are no genetically modified wheats anywhere on the market, but that is a direction, along with hybrid wheat, that is expected to take place in the near future. Acceptance, however, will be necessary, the wheat breeder panelists agreed.
“Most people don’t know what GMO means; they don’t know that GMO is a technique, a tool that can be used in the breeding toolbox,” Lewis said. “There is a lot of confusion on what GMO is, and it has been a slow process of education for the general public. There is a perception issue.”
The breeders agreed they will look at both GMO and non-GMO solutions to issues and the non-GMO alternative will be taken, if there is one, because it is much cheaper. Nitrogen use efficiency, heat tolerance and water use efficiency are traits being worked on.
“We have a skeptical public, which is okay; but we also have a gullible public, which is discouraging,” Perry said. “They are willing to accept the popular view on something rather than scientific research. So take every opportunity to educate the people around you.”
Rich said GMO acceptance will be more likely when related to areas of food safety.
“It’s an emotional issue to a lot of people, and an education issue,” he said. “We need to educate the people on what GMO traits can do and how we can feed people correctly. We can reduce the amount of pesticides; we can reduce the amount of nitrogen we put in the soil; we can reduce the amount of irrigation we have to apply to get those maximum yields.”
In the end, Barnett said, it will need to be a trait that has direct effect to the pocketbook – of both the consumer and the producer – by making a loaf of bread cheaper and the production cheaper for the farmer.
“It’s a real luxury here in the U.S. as long as our bellies are full and food is cheap, we can complain about having GMOs in our products,” Perry said. “But that is a real disservice to others in the world who don’t have that luxury. I don’t know how we can get that across to our public; a lot of it is in their hands.”
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