Monday, November 15, 2010

Industry, Growers Push Seed Companies to Ramp up Wheat Research, Development

Progressive Farmer Editor Kurt Lawton writes that wheat growers have pleaded for years for greater investment in public and private breeding programs and genetic improvements. Yet there has been little incentive to do so.

Growers are reluctant to buy certified seed and wheat continues to lose ground, literally, to corn and oilseeds in the United States.

Planted acres in 2010 dropped by 4.8 million acres from last year, bringing the total to 54.3 million acres -- the lowest total since 1971.

But it appears wheat farmers' pleas are finally being heard. "The good news is we've seen some major wheat research investments made last year and this year, and we're very excited," says Jim Bair, vice president of the North American Millers' Association (NAMA).

"For the first time in a long time, major private companies are working to develop both conventional and biotech varieties."


The biggest efforts regarding improved wheat research have come from Monsanto. The biotech giant acquired Montana-based WestBred wheat breeding business in 2009.

In June 2010, they announced a partnership with Kansas State University, allowing both entities to share germplasm and technology.

In July, Monsanto and BASF announced they have nearly doubled their investment in an already established joint venture to develop biotech crops -- and have now included a focused effort in wheat.

And in August, Monsanto purchased a 19.9 percent share of Australia's leading wheat breeder and germplasm developer, InterGrain.

"We're obviously still concerned about wheat acres, as research doesn't bring immediate results. It'll be several years before we see yield improvement, with biotech wheat varieties probably not available for quite some time," Bair says.

"With the introduction of drought-resistant corn coming in the next few years into the drier areas of the High Plains where wheat has been best suited, we'll probably see acreage losses get worse before it gets better," he adds.


Monsanto's purchase of WestBred gives the company well-established and successful breeding programs in key geographic areas and in key classes of wheat, says Sean Gardner, global commercial wheat lead for Monsanto.

"While the introduction of biotech traits such as drought tolerance, nitrogen-use efficiency and higher yields will eventually be incorporated into the WestBred germplasm platform in the next decade, our short-term emphasis is to produce better varieties.

"We want to give growers more and better choices to improve their wheat profitability."

Monsanto will also explore herbicide-tolerant and disease-resistant biotech traits, but does not plan to further develop its first-generation Roundup Ready trait in wheat.

Gardner says a combination of factors led Monsanto back into the wheat business. "Much of the U.S. wheat industry value chain -- from growers to processors -- desire seed companies such as ourselves to invest in wheat.

"As we looked at the potential synergy between wheat and the biotech efforts we have going in corn ... we're confident we can provide products of increasing value to growers," he says.

The company has been busy working with WestBred to achieve better varieties more quickly using technologies that Monsanto currently uses in corn and other crops.

"We're getting very serious about adopting doubled haploid technology to dramatically shorten the variety development time. In fact, we plan to open a new doubled haploid wheat research facility in Wichita, Kan., over the next few months."

(Doubled haploids are genetically pure inbred plants, which can now be achieved in one year through special techniques, but which used to take five to eight generations to develop in the field. This cuts variety development time significantly.)

Along with doubled haploid technology, wheat breeders at Monsanto will expand their use of molecular marker-assisted selection to find and flag beneficial traits.

This also allows scientists to screen millions of data points with high throughput analysis technology -- like they are using in other crops. And their partnership with BASF will further improve their biotech work.


The next big step coming within five years will be a complete mapping of the wheat genome -- which will usher in a new era of wheat improvement.

Recent announcements by a British research team who claim to have sequenced the genome of Chinese spring wheat as a reference variety is incomplete.

The International Wheat Genome Sequence Consortium says the claim is premature as the sequences have yet to be ordered, annotated and aligned so the position of the genes along the chromosomes is known.

Bayer CropSciences, Syngenta, Pioneer, Limagrain and others are focusing varied efforts in wheat. The industry is also seeing advanced plant breeding service companies start up.

One such company is Heartland Plant Innovations in Manhattan, Kan. -- a for-profit venture that will conduct contract research to help discover and commercialize new products for public and private research clients.

"Initially we're collaborating on research with Kansas State University and the University of Kansas to develop biotech solutions for wheat and sorghum, along with finding novel new products from native plants," says Forrest Chumley, president and CEO of the company. "We also plan to help private seed companies with specific biotech research services."


Buying certified wheat seed every year is one hurdle the industry must overcome. "Our job is to provide varieties that add value to a wheat grower, in order to make our case for certified seed," Monsanto's Gardner says.

"Consistent use of certified seed tends to correlate with yield and profitability, which is why we see higher certified seed use in the Pacific Northwest and East wheat markets compared to lower use in the High Plains," he adds.

"Growers are not ideologically opposed to using certified seed. The decision is a reflection of best choices for each operation's business model. So we're optimistic that we will provide increased value."

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