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Syngenta moves closer to launching GM wheat

By Lorraine Heller , 15-Mar-2006

Leading agribusiness Syngenta could be set to introduce the world's first genetically modified wheat seed by early next decade, a move fully supported by American wheat industry organizations.

The Swiss company has already conducted several years of successful trials on its wheat seed, which has been developed to resist the increasingly troublesome disease fusarium.

 

Syngenta now says it needs to conduct more extensive field performance evaluations and technical success in field trials, emphasizing that it is still in early stages of development.

 

Indeed, the firm is still keeping quiet about its GM wheat, making no public announcements and speaking tentatively when it comes to possible commercialization dates.

 

"We have no timelines," said spokesperson Anne Burt. "It takes a long time from initial development to final registration, but the earliest possible date it could be ready is early next decade."

 

The company is currently talking to stakeholders to query market acceptance of the genetically modified wheat.

 

"We will go where the market is," Burt told FoodNavigator-USA.com.

 

Indeed, Syngenta has good reason to be cautious. With wheat forming a major staple in the Western diet today, the introduction of a genetically modified version is likely to cause significant controversy and opposition.

 

In fact, two years ago, rival company Monsanto did not follow through on plans to introduce a GM wheat variety that was resistant to herbicide.

 

"Wheat is such an essential food product. Developing genetically modified traits does attract the attention of activists who are opposed to technology; and it is easy to critique because of the emotional values connected to it," said Lisa Dry, communications director of the Biotechnology Industry Organization's (BIO) food and agriculture department. BIO represents companies in the field of biotechnology, offering legal support to get FDA approval for new products.

 

But despite the opposition a GM wheat is sure to raise, US wheat industry organizations have given their full backing to Syngenta.

 

Last month, US Wheat Associates (USW), the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and the Wheat Export Trade Education Committee (WETEC) passed resolutions of support for biotechnological research, which they said "holds great promise for the future."

 

"USW/NAWG/WETEC support continued research and development of Syngenta's fusarium tolerance transgenic trait in wheat and will work proactively with stakeholders in the food system for the benefit of customers and consumers worldwide, US wheat producers and the whole US wheat industry," they said.

 

The organizations also announced certain positions they have taken "in preparation for the future commercialization of biotechnologically-derived wheat," which they believe can occur with "minimum market disruption."

 

These include support of wheat growers to ensure that planting and marketing choices are based on economic, agronomic, and market factors, as well as backing wheat customers in their decisions to make purchases on the basis of specific traits.

 

The wheat organizations also said they encourage the adoption of a nationally and internationally accepted definition of biotechnologically-derived products, as well as the international harmonization of scientific standards and trade rules.

 

They oppose compulsory labeling of products containing GM wheat in both the US and international markets if the biotechnologically-derived traits "do not differ significantly from their conventional counterpart." However, they said they support voluntary labeling, provided it is consistent with US law and international trade agreements and is not misleading.

 

They also said they "support and will assist in the development by all segments of the industry of an orderly marketing system to assure delivery of non-transgenic wheat within reasonable tolerances to markets that require it."

 

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