The future of wheat

THE BREEDER’S PERSPECTIVE

WEB SPECIAL
MUCH LIKE FARMERS needing to anticipate markets, weather, and availability when ordering seed many months before planting, plant breeders face the unique challenge of solving today’s problems while anticipating future issues.

In Ontario, we grow several types of wheat in a relatively small geographic area. The types include soft red winter, soft white winter, hard red winter, and hard red spring. Our future competitiveness relies on new and improved varieties coming to the market place. We are fortunate to have a strong, dedicated team of researchers working to help position Ontario as the place to go for high quality wheat for many different uses.

Researchers must consider insect and disease pressures, farmer concerns, and public perception when creating varieties. Since breeding often takes several generations to change a species before even being considered for market approval, breeders must look to the future for problems and solutions.

The Ontario Cereal Industry Research Council (OCIRC) held their annual conference in March. A panel discussion on the future of soft wheat was included in the meeting, with Dr. Eric Olsen, Michigan State University, Dr. Clay Sneller, Ohio State University, and Dr. Alireza Navabi, as panelists. Navabi holds the Grain Farmers of Ontario professorship in wheat breeding at the University of Guelph.

Major topics of the panel discussion included Fusarium, genetic modification, collaboration between public and private breeders, and maintaining the quality and functionality of wheat.

Fusarium is a constant concern for wheat growers, and as a result, a challenge for wheat breeders. Although no ‘silver bullet’ currently exists for resisting the disease, several factors can reduce the risk of contamination.

“We want to see an integrated approach to any biotic stress,” says Dr. Navabi. “This includes disease resistance and a good cropping system.”

Education is also important. It’s crucial for farmers to make sure they are growing the right variety that’s appropriate for their land. Another possibility, though not yet approved, is genetically modified wheat. According to Sneller, a transgene exists that could make a huge impact on Fusarium infections.

“The U.S. industry would like genetically modified wheat,” says Sneller. “Wheat acres are being lost to corn and soybeans, but we still need to grow it. Transgenes could be helpful and would help the industry overcome big hurdles, but genetically modified wheat is still far away.”

Genetically modified wheat would be a huge asset for reducing Fusarium and increasing disease resistance, but consumer acceptance is a problem.

“You couldn’t sell it,” says Olsen. “Millers could be in favour if there were added benefits, but consumers would need to be convinced.”

Other challenges with genetically modified wheat include a smaller market due to the ban of genetically modified foods in Europe and the infrastructure necessary to export wheat.

“It would be hard to separate products and ship separately to countries,” adds Olsen.

Since genetic modification is still distant, public and private breeders aim to create the ideal Ontario wheat through traditional breeding techniques: high yielding with high market quality. Collaboration between public and private partners is essential, says Olson. He says breeding programs cannot function without co-operation and are part of a national network. There is a good exchange of germplasm between public and private researchers.

“It’s a numbers game,” says Olson. “The more people breeding, the better.”

Olson says there are more innovations in wheat breeding coming out of the public sector, including Fusarium resistance. Public research often focuses on wheat breeding because there is more of a need for it – for example, large investments are already made in private soybean research.

“Public breeders aren’t competing with private breeders,” says Navabi. “There are overlaps but there are also significant differences. Public breeding will happen no matter what, while private breeding occurs only as long as it’s profitable to do so. Oftentimes public breeders will train new researchers and test new germplasm that will be beneficial in the long term.”

Breeders focus on the quality and functionality of wheat. This is accomplished through staying in contact with millers to listen to their needs as well as health trends in the food industry. For example, health benefit factors are currently popular. New research focuses on antioxidants, a common buzz word in nutrition today. “Anything to make wheat healthier is an asset,” says Sneller.

The wheat sector faces unique challenges with unique solutions. Wheat breeders are constantly improving and creating strains that meet growers’ present and anticipated needs while keeping in mind the needs of processors. Ontario and Canadian wheat is renowned for its quality and safety and breeders work to maintain that international reputation. •