Saturday, April 2, 2011

Genetically modified wheat top research goal for Canada

The National Research Council plans to develop genetically modified wheat in Canada — a measure long resisted by the country’s wheat farmers.

The NRC says Canadian wheat farmers are becoming less productive and need to adapt, especially in the face of climate change. It suggests GM wheat as a solution.

In the past week, senior NRC management has been unveiling its long-term strategy to its researchers and other staff. The goal, says a leaked copy of the plan, is to become a “market-driven organization whose primary goal is to develop and deploy technology.”

And it says building better wheat is one of the top goals.

Canada is “losing global market share for our exports,” it says. “Our annual productivity is ranked last against other top producing countries.” As demand rises, “climate change is impacting our agricultural production.”
The document outlines how transgenic wheat could produce new hybrids that will be “a game changer.” (Transgenic organisms have DNA modified through genetic engineering techniques, to create a desirable trait such as resistance to disease.)

But the document warns that a “huge effort” will be necessary to decode all the genetic material in wheat and to learn what traits can be manipulated in the lab.

The Canadian Wheat Board, which represents growers, has opposed GM wheat for years only because it is difficult to sell in Asia and Europe. And it disputes the view of its growers as unproductive. But it does welcome the offer to decode the DNA of wheat.

Spokeswoman Maureen Fitzhenry said that “mapping the wheat genome is a worthwhile goal that does not necessarily mean GM varieties. It would be good for plant breeding in all senses.”

And she said the board is pleased that the NRC promises to let the marketplace “define the need for and acceptance of the technologies.”

The full genome of wheat — its entire set of DNA — has not been decoded. It is the subject of a massive international effort. But it is still possible for companies to insert one known gene from other plants, such as the pesticide-resistant gene that allows farmers to spray and kill weeds without hurting the wheat. (The same gene addition is common in corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops.)

The NRC hasn’t responded to questions about its new strategy.

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