By Terry Wanzek: Jamestown, North Dakota
It may be the greatest thing since sliced bread. Heck, it may be even better than sliced bread.
Several weeks ago, researchers announced that they had tapped into key parts of the wheat genome. With this success, we could be on the path to doubling wheat production and increasing food security for people around the world.
That’s an awful lot of sliced bread.
It also marks one of several important milestones in the history of wheat, a plant that currently accounts for around 20 percent of all calories consumed by humans.
About 8,000 years ago, farmers domesticated this staple crop. This agricultural innovation may have led to human society’s transition from hunting and gathering to settled production and the rise of civilization.
Almost 2,000 years ago, the Gospel of Matthew gave us one of our best-known idioms, about separating the wheat from the chaff.
And today, scientists are exposing the secrets of wheat’s genetic makeup.
The formal announcement came in Nature, the academic journal. Scientists from the United Kingdom led the effort, joined by collaborators in Germany and the United States. One member of the team hails from my home state: Dr. Shahryar F. Kianian, a geneticist at North Dakota State University.
Wheat may look like a simple plant, but its biology is astonishingly complex. Wheat is comprised of three different grasses; it has an enormous genome of about 95,000 genes, which is roughly five times larger than the human genome.
So decoding wheat’s genome is a long and laborious task. In Science, the researchers described their approach, called "shotgun sequencing." They break the genome into pieces and look for patterns, allowing them to learn more at a faster pace.
It’s like separating wheat and chaff at the genetic level.
Their paper was written for an audience of peers, scientists with advanced degrees. Yet their conclusion points to a practical application: "Analysis of complex polygenic traits such as yield and nutrient use efficiency will also be accelerated, contributing to sustainable increases in wheat crop production."
In ordinary English, that means we’ll soon grow both more and better wheat.
This advance hardly could have come at a more fitting time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that global farmers grew 681 million tons of wheat in 2011. Only corn and rice had bigger harvests.
Amid this modern bounty, droughts have caused the price of wheat to bounce up and down, creating economic and political instability. Many experts trace the recent tumult in the Middle East—including the ongoing civil war in Syria—to a sudden spike in the cost of wheat and other foods.
Wheat is a hardy plant that can grow in semi-arid environments. This helpful trait accounts for much of its usefulness and popularity. Ironically, the plant’s toughness also puts it on the front lines of climate change. When droughts strike, wheat often feels the pressure first.
By taking advantage of wheat’s genome, we can apply the same tools of biotechnology that have launched a global revolution in agriculture. In the United States and many other parts of the world, the vast majority of corn and soybeans is genetically enhanced to fight weeds and pests.
With wheat, biotechnology can help us take a plant that already makes efficient use of moisture and build increased drought resistance right into its fundamental makeup. This will make wheat even more durable during dry spells.
This is an essential development, if we hope to keep up with global population growth and also make sure that people enjoy access to affordable food. Geneticist Michael Bevan of the John Innes Center in the United Kingdom put the matter bluntly in the Wall Street Journal: "We need to double wheat yields."
Decoding wheat’s genome is an indispensible step on the way to meeting this vital goal.
At some point, perhaps one of these brainy scientists will do us all a favor and insert a special trait into the next generation of wheat plants: One that bakes the bread and slices the loaves at the same time.
Terry Wanzek is a wheat, corn and soybean farmer in North Dakota. He serves as a ND State Senator and volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org