Not a 'sexy' investment
Its almost-exclusive role as food for humans makes it a less attractive investment.
"Wheat isn't sexy," said Mike Miller, a Washington state wheat farmer and commissioner for the Washington Grain Commission. "Corn is sexy because it has many more values," like feedstock and biofuels.
For decades, wheat was regarded as a weed among the blossoming priorities of private agribusiness, compared to moneymakers like corn and soybeans. About 78 percent of wheat varieties were developed by universities through public grants, said Jorge Dubcovsky, an agronomist at the University of California, Davis. It was simply not lucrative enough for the private sector.
Seed companies make the most money off hybrid varieties, a sort of mule of the plant world. Like the mule, a hardworking donkey-horse combination, a hybrid seed displays the best combination of its parents' genetic qualities. Its drawback is that it is sterile and cannot reproduce.
Unlike corn and soybeans, most wheat varieties are not hybrids. This means that farmers don't need to buy new seed every year, a lost market for seed companies. The drive for wheat research was motivated by food security efforts, said Dubcovsky, not necessarily by higher profit margins.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allotted about $60 million to wheat research. "[It] might sound large, but it pales in comparison to what the private industry is putting into corn and soybeans, almost on a daily basis," said Jane DeMarchi, director of government affairs for research and technology at the National Association of Wheat Growers.
The relative lack of interest from private companies left wheat farmers wanting attention. Two and a half years ago, the wheat industry mobilized and began approaching technology providers. "In 2008, growers were very active in soliciting investment from private companies," said DeMarchi. "The dynamics of investment are changing."
Monsanto, the world's biggest seed company, flirted with wheat genetics in the late 1990s, looking to add to its line of Roundup Ready crops. The company abandoned its efforts in 2004, due to a dismal outlook for profits.
A few years later, a turnaround occurred. Wheat markets were on the upswing, and growers began pushing heavily for more private investment in research. In 2009, Monsanto bought WestBred, a small grain biotechnology research firm out of Bozeman, Mont. With the merger, Monsanto acquired WestBred's germplasm -- a collection of genetic resources -- and gave itself five to seven years to develop new varieties of drought-tolerant and high-yielding wheat.
More public-private partnerships
Recently, private companies have carved out a role in the campaign for global sustainability. At the most recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a public-private strategy headed by 17 major corporations was launched to boost crop yields, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut poverty by 20 percent each in the next decade (Climatewire, Jan. 31).
Last year saw a growth of partnerships between private companies, federal agencies, land-grant universities and organizations. Swiss agribusiness company Syngenta formed a partnership with wheat research institution CIMMYT, seeking to develop both cutting-edge technology and traditional methods accessible to poor farmers in developing countries.
Monsanto announced plans to collaborate with Kansas State University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University on wheat research. NAWG adopted an official policy to prioritize collaboration between organizations, universities and private companies.
"There's no question that the private sector has an increasingly important role in investing in agriculture, simply because governments and other public institutions can no longer afford to," said Brian Halweil, a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, an organization promoting sustainability in international agriculture. "The big question is whether private entities will have the public interest as part of its mission."