Unconventional Farmers: A Tale of Two Wheats

Courtesy of Lisa M. Hamilton.

In Deeply Rooted, I wrote about a group of organic farmers in North Dakota who were doing the remarkable work of breeding wheat on their farms—something all but unheard of since the dawn of modern plant breeding. It came about because they needed a variety that would work without herbicides, fertilizers or pesticides, but the state university showed little interest in helping them—its focus was on conventional growers. So the farmers did what farmers do when they need something done: they did it themselves.

In April, their story took on new relevance, as a coalition of wheat trade associations in the US, Canada and Australia rolled out a renewed campaign to develop and release GMO wheat.

While GMO corn and soybeans are essentially an accepted fact in the commodity world today (accounting for, respectively, 80 and 92 percent of conventional acreage in 2008), attempts at releasing GMO wheat have heretofore failed. As one university breeder explained to me, “Wheat is the last grain in the hands of the farmer.” Corn and soy have been privately owned for decades now, meaning farmers must buy new seed each year. However, wheat, the final third of the American grain empire, is still public: researchers develop varieties and give them away to seed growers; wheat farmers buy seed roughly once every five years, but after that they act as their own seed supplier, saving and replanting it year after year. And that’s a central reason why so far, farmers have rejected GMO wheat: its patent restrictions would make seed-saving a prosecutable offense. (If you’ve seen the new movie Food Inc., then you know how severe the ramifications are.)

But a new wave of pressures may cause the industry to reconsider. Recent droughts have crippled wheat crops in several major wheat growing regions around the world. Knowing that that trend is likely to increase with continued climate change, farmers (especially in Australia) are opening themselves to the possibility of wheat engineered to be drought-resistant. Meanwhile, some in the industry complain that GMO corn and soybeans have made those crops more profitable to grow, which has led farmers to plant less wheat. They argue that herbicide-resistant wheat would level the playing field, by enabling the same economies of scale that those other commodities now have.

Still, not all wheat farmers are on board. Plenty argue that the trade associations’ joint effort to push for GMO wheat doesn’t accurately reflect the sentiments of the farmers themselves. Conventional wheat farmer Todd Leake offered an especially great counterpoint on Grist (the discussion of which continues in the extensive comments). This kind of resistance will be critical as the drumbeat for GMO wheat—indeed, GMO everything—grows louder. But a critical partner to that dissent will be practical alternatives, such as the farmers in North Dakota are building. Their Farm Breeder Club offers a model that meets the demands of climate change (not to mention the end of cheap fossil fuels and fresh water), without sacrificing farmers’ rights. Going forward, that will be essential.

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