Midwest Grain Products of Atchison, Kan., the world's largest manufacturer of wheat gluten, is in the early stages of a research project aimed at developing a biodegradable clear wrapping similar to the plastic wraps now used widely in the food industry.

Ladd Seaberg, president of Midwest Grain, said the company has committed to spend $1.65 million on research and test-marketing, with about half the

funds coming initially from the federal government. The Kansas Wheat

Commission and the Kansas Value-Added Center kicked in smaller amounts.A successful commercial food wrap made from wheat could significantly increase the demand for Kansas' No. 1 crop and could reduce the amount of plastic trash dumped into landfills every year.

"Projects like this, you don't expect to get any immediate return. You're really planning for your future," Seaberg said.

He said the company hopes to have a marketable product in two to five years.

The same property that makes wheat protein valuable as a bread ingredient - its elasticity - also makes the protein useful in making the industrial film wrapping, Seaberg said. And while the company is concentrating on food wrap, it is keeping an open mind to other products.

"You may start out making a blown-film type of product and end up making something else," he said.

According to the wheat commission, which rarely contributes funds to for- profit companies, the United States uses about 55 billion pounds of petroleum-based plastic products each year, and 22 billion of those end up in landfills.

The federal funding for the project comes from the Alternative Agricultural Research and Commercialization Center, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Seaberg said that, if a successful commercial product is develop, the $800,000 grant from that agency would be repaid.