The Monsanto Co. has nearly tripled the acreage of its permitted field tests for genetically engineered wheat in 2012, bringing the total to 900 acres, according to USDA data.
Last year, the biotech developer obtained permits for 360 acres of transgenic wheat field tests, its first since 2004, when the company shelved plans for a glyphosate-resistant variety of the crop.
Experts say the expanding field tests indicate Monsanto is making progress in its development of new biotech wheat cultivars, though commercialization is still up to a decade away.
Field testing is expensive, so the increased acreage would indicate Monsanto is gaining confidence in the viability of the biotech varieties, said Arron Carter, a wheat breeder at Washington State University.
“If they’re investing in field testing, it’s definitely something they’re interested in,” he said.
Once a biotech developer identifies a new genetic trait in the laboratory setting, its researchers will typically insert it into multiple crop cultivars to ensure it’s stable, Carter said.
After that, biotech companies will plant the crop outdoors as part of a field test to determine how the new trait performs in “real world” conditions, he said. “There are so many unknowns.”
Monsanto has two biotech wheat projects that began moving through its “research pipeline,” but they are still in the earliest phase of study, according to an email from a company spokesperson.