For many years, wheat has been ignored compared with other crops in terms of research and technology. Now, the waves of grain have turned as wheat breeders are heading back into the research lab.
Farmers’ requests for wheat varie-ties that resist disease, handle environmental stress and yield more at harvest are driving the change.
"The market research that we looked at would suggest that wheat growers, and in fact the entire wheat value chain, are receptive to more technology investment in wheat," says Sean Gardner, commercial wheat lead for Monsanto Company.
Wheat breeders will employ genetic markers to help identify naturally occurring traits, such as disease resist-ance or susceptibility, drought tolerance, quality and production. Hopefully, marker technology can also speed up the conventional breeding process in wheat as it has in other crops, Gardner adds.
Monsanto surprised the wheat world in July 2009 by acquiring WestBred, a company with a large wheat germplasm portfolio. Now, to focus on advanced breeding technologies, Monsanto and WestBred are teaming with Kansas State University to identify positive and negative marker-
assisted traits in the wheat genome.
"We are providing access to some of these marker-assisted breeding tools, and they are providing access to some of their specific locally adapted germplasm," Gardner says. "Both sides have the opportunity to breed better varieties for Kansas growers."
Hybrid hunt. In March, Syngenta Seeds, which produces AgriPro wheat, announced it is fully funding its marker-assisted hybrid research program, under the direction of breeder Randy Rich. This investment is in addition to the company’s research in wheat varieties.
"In the mid- to late ’90s, hybrid wheat performed and grew very well. The crux was that it cost a lot to produce seed," explains Paul Morano, Syngenta Seeds national marketing manager for AgriPro. "Through our work in the European market and their experience with hybrid barley, production costs may be coming more in line for producers."
Hybrids naturally have a higher yield component, called heterosis. The use of markers to identify genetic traits can make the component more effective, Morano says.
"Not only are you gaining yield but also a higher heterosis in disease resistance, drought tolerance, nitrogen use and other production aspects. We are in the early stages of identifying the various markers—what their makeup is and what each of them mean—and getting them into new varieties," Morano explains.
"What growers ask us for is yield and production consistency," Morano says. "We feel that through hybrid varieties, we can achieve that consist-ency in the future."
Timing and GM traits. Gardner and Morano say it will be several years before new wheat traits are identified, tested in the field and ready for farmers. WestBred and AgriPro will continue to release their respective new products as they become available.
"As the benefits of these breeding technologies come into play, we should see the rate of genetic gain, the amount of additional yield that you can bring in a given new product, start to get bigger," Gardner says.
Genetically modified (GM) traits are likely to come, but due to the diverse nature of wheat genetics, the end product will be much more complex than GM traits in other crops.
Monsanto has indicated interest in developing GM traits to create sustainable yield along with breeding traits in wheat. Morano says Syngenta is in the evaluation process of what genes are out there—both native and GM traits—that might be cost-effective and helpful to the producer.