In 2010, the amount of wheat planted in Kansas is expected to be less than the combined total of corn, sorghum and soybeans. For "the wheat state," this statistic is alarming.
According to Drew Kershen, University of Oklahoma law professor, wheat – the most widely consumed grain in the world – needs investment in research and development and most importantly, biotechnology.
Kershen spoke at the inaugural Kansas and World Agriculture gathering at the Center for International Trade and Agriculture conference on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence earlier this month. Kershen champions biotechnology in wheat as a means to curb hunger and promote national security.
His topic, "Genetically Modified Wheat – Its Past, Present and Challenging Future," centered on the fact that, compared to corn and soybeans, investment in wheat research in the U.S. is minute. As such, those crops have gained dramatic increases in yield and planted acres. Yet, demand for wheat continues to grow.
Wheat products provide 20% of the calories consumed in the world on a given day; with world population expected to increase to 9 billion by 2050, global wheat production must increase to keep pace, says Kershen, adding that farming more land is not an option. Kershen says "sustainably intensifying" current wheat production is necessary.
He says a lack of biotechnology investment into wheat is one reason that wheat's competitiveness has been lost. Another is the scarcity of talented young wheat breeders coming through the land-grant university ranks. As Kershen puts it, if you were a young plant scientist, would you rather work in the corn and soybean industries, which have all the biotech bells and whistles, or the one that has none?
"We have lost so many young people that could go into wheat research. They are doing great and wonderful work, in the crops that have biotechnology," says Kershen, who compares the disparity of public and private research and development funds to the lack of parity in major league baseball. "It's worse than the Kansas City Royals vs. the New York Yankees," he says. "It's like the Tulsa Drillers competing with the New York Yankees."
Kershen says all is not lost, however. Major research in biotech drought-tolerant wheat is being conducted in Australia, while China spends more research money on genetically modified crops than any country in the world. Slowly, U.S. companies are expanding research into biotech wheat.
The positives of biotech wheat are too great to ignore, he says, adding that once adopted by farmers, transgenic wheat will be safe, healthy and have a less negative environmental impact than conventional wheat.
Worldwide, resistance to biotech wheat is softening. "I don't think it is as great a problem as we once thought, if you have the will to move forward," Kershen says. "And we have to have that will."
He says the lack of biotech wheat poses a dramatic national security issue. "The real risk of not adopting transgenic wheat is that in the U.S., wheat will become a minor crop and we'll get our wheat from Russia, Australia, China or other countries,” he says.