By R.J. Ralston
In contrast to corn and soybeans, public programs historically lead wheat research and advances. With six classes of wheat grown across 42 U.S. states, there is a great need for localized breeding.
According to the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), about 75 percent of varieties planted today came from public programs, including USDA Agricultural Research Service locations and land grant universities.
However, there seems to be game-changing moves happening on the private side.
“The private sector sees the growth opportunity in wheat,” explains Richard Horsley, North Dakota State University chair of plant sciences. That is due in part to renewed interest in biotech genes in wheat, as well as the large market it represents. North Dakota alone grows 7 million acres of wheat, says Horsley.
NAWG reports wheat exports contributed nearly $6 billion to the U.S. economy last year. Additionally, wheat is responsible for 20 percent of calories consumed in the world.
Big corn and soybean players such as Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto and Syngenta have upped their ante in the wheat game recently, says Horsley. And NAWG documents 19 major announcements regarding new wheat research since 2008 alone.
Another indicator of change is that public programs are beginning to alter how they share germplasm, Horsley explains. Traditionally, breeding programs submit advanced lines to uniform regional nurseries, which are overseen by the USDA and often run the last trials before a release.
“If you submitted materials, you would get access to other materials. A free exchange,” Horsley says, comparing it to similar programs in barley and oats. “That’s changing in wheat.”
For example, in hard red spring wheat, the trial program is now a public-only nursery, he says. Additionally, bilateral agreements between private and public bodies are becoming more common in wheat. In the past, public releases were the norm.
Despite the evolving industry, support for public programs, particularly in wheat, is still critical to growers’ success. Localized breeding provides the highest performing varieties for that environment, and can be highly dependent on federal or state governments and check-off funds.
“Our university and state realize the importance of agriculture and allow our breeders to have variety development as a top priority,” Horsley says. “Breeders in other states may not have that freedom.”