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“It’s the Economy, stupid”

May 5, 2010
BIO is in Chicago for the 2010 BIO International Convention.  Visit this space for updates direct from our food and ag sessions.

“It’s the Economy, stupid”
by Val Giddings and Jens Katzek

It is said that President Bill Clinton used this sentence, when focusing his campaign staff: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

This sentence came to mind during a session exploring the wheat market and the potential impact that genetic engineering might have, in a BIO session titled: “Wheat, Don’t pass me by”.

Whereas the National Association of Wheat Growers in the United States once rejected the idea that GM could be an option, their position today is much more open. This is not because of new scientific developments with wheat that make it a more attractive target, but because of developments in wheat markets – other crops, especially biotech corn and soy, have become more profitable, and global competition has increased.  As a consequence, one can see a strong expansion of soybean and corn planting moving t the north and west. Meanwhile, the wheat harvest declined from 80 million acres in 1980 to 30 million in 2008!

Mark Darrington, an Idaho farmer, made very clear that he loved wheat as a rotation crop – but that it has become economically less and less attractive, although he pays five times as much for corn seed. 

Australian grower German Spangenberg also painted a compelling picture:  VABC has established a transgenic plant core facility in Victoria working on all relevant traits, especially drought and frost tolerance, and grain yield enhancement. Nine years out of ten drought impacts up to 20 Million hectares with losses of 70 percent in 2007 in Victoria costing U$300 million in losses.  Several fungal diseases cost another U$300 million. Not surprisingly 76 percent of all Australian wheat farmer support biotech according to data raised by the National Association of Wheat Growers. But also the public acceptance of biotechnology has increased dramatically during the last years in Australia.

Hayden Wands from the American Bakers Association was less concerned with yield. For him it was important to get quality and consumer benefit traits, and although acceptance concerns linger they are no longer seen s a serious deterrent.   

Today all big companies are working on wheat (Limagarin, Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, Syngenta, BASF). It is estimated, however, that new varieties will take 8-12 years before they are ready to commercialize. 

John Miller, Chairman of NAMA, the North American Millers' Association, made clear, however, that although he strongly supports biotech solutions that this does not mean that in the future non GM wheat will not be offered. “Those consumers who would like to have it will get it.”

Dr. Jens Katzek is Managing Director of a biotech development consortium in Central Germany.  He has 25 years of regulatory, media, and policy experience.  He has been a scientific advisor to the European Commission, and worked for an environmental organization, a seed company, and was Managing Director of the German BIO, DIB.  He can be reached at

Giddings is a genetics PhD and  biotech consultant with nearly 30 years regulatory, media, and policy experience.  He was a Vice President for BIO Food & Agriculture from 1997 to 2006. He can be reached at