Valley View by Blaine Jacobson: Idaho wheat fields fade as genetically modified corn rises

BLAINE JACOBSON, executive director of Idaho Wheat CommissionSeptember 17, 2013 

Idaho wheat growers breathed a sigh of relief July 30 when Yoshimasa Hayashi, Japan’s minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, stepped to the podium in his weekly briefing and said Japan would immediately resume shipments of soft white wheat from Idaho and the Pacific Northwest. It was welcome news, coming just as Idaho’s harvest was starting.

Japan and Korea suspended new tenders of our soft white wheat earlier in the summer when rogue genetically engineered glyphosate-resistant wheat plants were discovered in an Oregon wheat field. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service issued an interim report that the finding appeared to be a single isolated incident in a single field on a single farm and emphasized that GE wheat did not pose a health hazard.

Although the tempest has passed, the larger issues of wheat’s decline in the American diet and the loss of farm acres to corn and soybeans remain. In contrast to wheat, corn and soybeans both benefit from genetically engineered traits. GE corn and soybeans were introduced in 1996, and the USDA estimates that 88 percent of corn and 94 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified.

Genetically engineered corn and soybeans are pushing wheat acres aside because these crops are more profitable for farmers. As an ingredient, GE corn is replacing wheat in American supermarkets and restaurants because it is less expensive for millers, bakers and food processors.

U.S. farmers are expected to harvest a record 174.4 million acres of corn and soybeans in 2013. Idaho is becoming part of this trend. Idaho harvested 360,000 acres of corn in 2012, an all-time high. Corn is pushing into Idaho fields where, in the past, non-GE corn would not have survived. Given its dairy industry, the growth of corn fields in the Magic Valley is no surprise. Surprising, however, is the extent to which corn has infiltrated the higher elevation fields throughout the state, such as those near Ririe.

The shift of crop land from wheat to corn is well-documented. A parallel shift is happening in our diet. Consumers need look no further than the cereal aisle to see signs. Much of the recent category growth has been made in cereals where corn is listed as the first ingredient.

Unless wheat can become more competitive with corn and soybeans, it is on a path to becoming a minor crop in the U.S. Biotech traits can make a major contribution to changing the competitive equation.

It is estimated that the penalty to wheat for not having just one drought-tolerant GE trait translates to 60 cents per bushel.

Closing the door to GE wheat will cause growers to abandon wheat, while moving too fast will cause markets to close doors. Harmonious change would be implementing reasonable tolerances while making sure high-quality, safe wheat is delivered to the customer, with biotech traits subjected to extensive testing and tough government approvals.

Moving forward on this path is essential in order to sustain a healthy and robust industry and to ensure that U.S. farmers continue to be a dependable supply for customers who enjoy wheat-based food products.

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blaine@idahowheat.org

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