In order to sufficiently feed the world’s growing population by 2050, it’s estimated that a nearly +100% increase in wheat production is needed. Unfortunately, seed companies have not been able to rely on the “GMO” technologies used to boost the yields and resilience in corn, soybean, and other row crops. Instead, scientists have spent years working on hybrid wheat varieties, a complicated and expensive process that can take decades to yield a final product. Finally, though, some of these new varieties are close to hitting the market.
Some may have already heard about Syngenta’s new wheat variety under its AgriPro brand. It was specifically created to deliver greater winter hardiness that will benefit growers in the Northern Plains region. Meanwhile, both BASF and Bayer are expected to bring new hybrid varieties to market by the end of the decade, many of which are designed to target unique pain points for farmers in specific regions.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, changing environmental conditions have proved detrimental to achieving sustainable increases in wheat production. The challenges include new pests and diseases, as well as increasing weather extremes and new “monster” weeds that are partially the result of climate change. The magic of genetic modification technology has been the ability to rapidly produce new varieties that are more resilient in the face of these changing threats.
Wheat, however, faces unique pushbacks against the use of genetic modification because it is primarily a human food grain. Meaning the majority of production is directly consumed by people, whereas crops like corn and soybeans go more toward cooking oil, animal feed, and other industrial uses. While years of research have disproved the lingering health concerns, growers, marketers, and seed manufacturers alike have mostly chosen to avoid a public stand off and stick to traditional breeding methods.
Hybrid wheat occurs when two different wheat varieties are cross-pollinated, or mated. The resulting seed is a hybrid, and plants from those seeds typically contain valuable attributes and traits from each parent. But due to its heavy, short-lived pollen, wheat is also a natural in-breeder. Meaning it tends to self-pollinate rather than cross-pollinate – the latter of which is crucial for producing hybrid seed to sell to farmers. This makes production of wheat hybrids slow, difficult, and expensive. But thanks to technological advancements – importantly, mapping the wheat genome – the hybridization process has made major in-roads in recent years, meaning the future for these varieties looks brighter than ever.
Most hybrids that have been produced in the past tended to deliver a less than +10% increase in yields, which most seed developers say is generally not worth it for growers considering the higher cost for hybrids. Paul Morano, head of North American cereals for Syngenta, says, “We have been very pleasantly surprised with the improved consistency of hybrid wheat. We need to have a consistent 10 to 12% yield advantage, but we are striving for a 15% advantage over anything else on the market.”
That doesn’t mean new wheat hybrids will be rolling out in readily available quantities, however. Moreno says Syngenta’s R&D time is now being spent perfecting hybrid seed production. AgriPo hybrid winter wheat sales are still a few years off, because winter wheat can’t be multiplied easily or inexpensively in warmer climates. In contrast, he says, hard red spring wheat can be produced in warmer climates like Arizona or Chile, so there will be more hybrid hard red spring wheat seed available this year. Still, he predicts it will take a few years for hybrid wheat to catch on, which could also slow availability. (Sources: Reuters, Syngenta, Milling Journal, SeedWorld)