Burdensome regulations and meeting sustainability standards pose challenges for Texas wheat growers in the coming years, says Steelee Fischbacher, director of policy and marketing for the Texas Wheat Producers Board and Association.
Fischbacher, speaking at the recent Big Country Wheat Conference in Abilene, said biotech wheat development offers wheat producers new opportunities to improve efficiency. “Growers have said they want it, and tech companies are back in,” she said.
“We will work to prepare the market for biotech wheat,” Fischbacher added.
She said sustainability offers some challenges for the industry as more and more manufacturers look to “source products from sustainable operations. Wheat farmers have made continuous improvement in sustainability over time,” she added, “but sustainability must include flexibility on land use. Profitability also has to be part of the equation.”
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Sustainability includes three aspects, Fischbacher explains: Environmental, social, and economic.
Environmental sustainability means farmers should do all they can to protect soil and water, a philosophy most practice as routine. “It’s their land,” Fischbacher said. “They take care of it to pass along to the next generation.”
She says social aspects of sustainability include providing benefits to local communities and being socially responsible with human and natural resources.
Corporations such as General Mills and Wal-Mart are requiring products from sustainable sources and are looking to bakers and millers to provide sustainable products. “Bakers and millers look to elevators and elevators “go back to farmers,” Fischbacher said. At some point, farmers may be required to meet sustainability labels. “That’s why we must get involved in the discussion,” she said. “If we don’t, we may not be considered sustainable.”
Also, without farmer input, the requirements may be overly burdensome. A guideline, such as one established by the Field to Market Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, will benefit the industry, she said. Field to Market includes some 50 entities, including businesses, grower associations, ag industry companies and others. “They establish a benchmark and measure (sustainability) from that. The TWPB is included in the Field to Market Alliance.”
Ag involvement crucial
She said participation by ag industries is crucial. “We don’t want to get to the point that farmers have to log in what they do every day. That’s their business.”
Fischbacher says another challenge is over-regulation. “Farmers may be asking, ‘Do I need a permit?’ for more and more activities. We’re trying to get regulations eased back.”
She cited the EPA’s Waters of the United States statement and the Endangered Species Act as issues TWPB and other farm organizations are watching. “We’re hoping for legislation in the House and Senate to scale back regulations.”
Climate change is also on the watch list. Recent climate change updates indicate temperatures are increasing and precipitation is declining, Fischbacher said. Projections call for those trends to increase over the next 25 years.
Farmers have overcome climate challenges over the past decades, she added, because of improved technology. “But we need more innovations.”
One of those could be biotech wheat, which could be available early in the next decade. “We’ve seen a lot of interest in biotech wheat over the past few years, especially from seed and technology companies. A recent National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates survey shows that more than 75 percent of U.S. wheat growers want biotech wheat. Tech companies are getting back in. Monsanto, for one, has on-going germplasm development.”
With biotech cultivar development new varieties can be developed in significantly less time than the 15 years typical with current breeding methods.
Essential groundwork will “prepare the market” for biotech wheat. A tri-lateral agreement between Australia, Canada and the United States will seek to achieve market acceptance by the time biotech wheat is ready. And conventional options will remain.
“We will ensure that consumers have a choice,” Fishbacher said. “We have strong support for maintaining consumer options.”
Even with sustainability, climate, and regulatory challenges, Fischbacher says, Texas wheat producers have a promising future as demand for top quality wheat remains high and farmers continue to improve production and conservation.