24 July 1998

GM wheat for UK in 5 years

By Charles Abel

WINTER wheat varieties genetically modified to resist take-all, fusarium and virus diseases could be on the market in five years after Monsantos £320m acquisition of Plant Breeding International Cambridge.

Adding a European wheat breeder completes the firms global seeds portfolio, which already includes French hybrid wheat specialist Hybri-Tech and Cargills global oilseeds breeding programme, explains Monsantos vice-president for agriculture, Hugh Grant.

"Wheat was one of our last acquisition targets in what has turned out to be a very fast period of spending."

In the short-term, hybrid wheats developed for the UK will offer higher yields of better breadmaking quality, thanks to the more vigorous growth of the hybrid crop and its better nitrogen uptake to boost protein content.

"The good news is that this will help UK growers produce more quality wheat even in a poor season like we seem to be having this year," says Mr Grant.

Monsantos first commercial hybrid, Cockpit, goes on limited sale this autumn. Further lines based on PBIC varieties will be developed for the future. In France wheat growers have had access to hybrids for four years already, Mr Grant notes.

Ultimately, GM technology will allow farmers to grow added-value varieties tuned to the specific needs of different animal feeds as well as specific human food products, notes Mr Grant.

He strongly refutes suggestions that the move to hybrid wheat, which is not suitable for farm saving, is a ploy to secure higher seed margins. "It is a consequence not a goal. We have not spent £320m just to do that. Look at hybrid maize. It was developed 60 years ago – not to stop farm saving, but because the greater crop vigour would give farmers something extra they could see in the bin at the end of every harvest."

Mr Grant is confident GM crops will win favour with consumers. "Our information campaign is drawing a big response. I believe that once the technology has been demystified these crops will be made commercially available."

But by the time GM wheat is marketed in 2003, farmers elsewhere in the world will have been benefiting from GM crops for seven years, he warns.

Despite now owning breeders in every significant crop sector Monsanto will not restrict its GM developments to its own varieties, Mr Grant stresses. "That would be commercial suicide. Even with PBIC, Cargill and Hybri-Tech now in the portfolio, we still control less than 10% of the world seed business. Theres still a lot of the seed industry to share our knowledge and germplasm with. We are not controlling these crops."

Existing breeding programmes in crops too small to justify GM investment, like peas and beans, will be maintained, adds Mr Grant. "This is not an asset stripping exercise. we are looking to continue our investment into PBIC."

lPBIC wheat varieties account for 68% of UK certified seed sales, notes PBIC director of operations David Walker. Hybrid technology could push that far higher. "The deal with Monsanto has put GM technology within our reach and we see that as the way of cereal production into the next century." &#42

Potato benefits

PBICs potato breeding venture will also benefit from Monsanto gene technology, Nature Mark material from the USA possibly helping build virus, blight and nematode resistance into UK varieties for the future, says John Richardson, co-head of wheat breeding for Monsanto in Brussels.