Stars align to put wheat back in the spotlight
For the past 30 years or so, the U.S. wheat yield trend line has marched along at a slow-but-steady average annual gain of less than 1⁄2 bu. per acre. Although research traditionally favors corn and soybean advancements at the expense of wheat that might be about to change.
In 2012, an international team of scientists completed an initial shotgun sequencing of the wheat genome. This allowed researchers to identify, categorize and record individual genes and gene cluster locations. Although it’s considered a "rough map" at this point, researchers say it is loaded with new points of interest for future studies.
The revitalized interest in wheat research began earlier than 2012, adds Allan Fritz, professor of wheat breeding with Kansas State University.
"Private industry investment in wheat has increased dramatically over the past four years," he says. "In addition, there are some genetic tools available that have previously only been available in other crops."
One of those tools is the ability to perform genomic selection, Fritz says. This system is dependent on a large set of DNA markers that hold genetic information about yield, quality, maturity, disease resistance and more.
Scientists run these markers on very early material to make predictions about a new variety’s performance. They now also use double haploid (DH) breeding techniques that can accelerate the development cycle.
"This process takes about a year in wheat and is about 20 times less efficient than the corn DH system, but it’s better than nothing," Fritz says.
The ever-expanding research toolbox is a big appeal for companies to invest more robustly in wheat research. The crop’s potential has never appeared so high, says Jeff Koscelny, wheat commercial lead at Monsanto Company.
"Overall, public and private enterprises alike realize there is a lot of value in wheat if we can make the genetic gains," Koscelny says. "We recognize we’ve got to create those gains for wheat to be more competitive."
Shorter pipelines. For Syngenta, DH technology is cutting variety development time from 10 to 12 years down to six or seven years, says Rollie Sears, senior science and technology fellow with Syngenta. This has allowed the company to start developing commercial hybrid wheat varieties in the U.S. and Canada.
"We’re applying the same principles we used in developing hybrid barley for Europe to develop hybrid wheat varieties for North America," he says. "Hybrid wheat can offer growers yield stability and consistent performance across fields with varying soil types. Our goal is to release hybrid wheat varieties to growers by the end of the decade."
Agribusinesses say they are digging in for the long haul. "We see wheat as a long-term investment," says David Nicholson, head of research and development at Bayer CropScience. "It will take time to deliver products that will have a significant impact."
Koscelny concurs, adding many companies have set their sights on an initiative by the National Association of Wheat Growers to boost wheat yields 20% by the year 2020. "We should be able to see significant gains in the latter part of this decade," he says.
You can e-mail Ben Potter at firstname.lastname@example.org.