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Wheat geneticists call for new techniques to boost yields

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 16-Aug-2010

New technologies to boost wheat yields are needed to meet an anticipated increase in global wheat demand, claim wheat geneticists writing in the latest issue of Crop Science.

The researchers, from Oregon State University, used US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data to estimate that the average increase in winter wheat yield in the Great Plains region has been about 1.1 percent per annum. However, the rate of yield increase is slowing, they said, with most of the rise taking place between 1959 and 1989. Examination of the data “suggests a plateau has been reached” they wrote.

The Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that food production will need to double by 2050 in order to feed an increasingly affluent population expected to reach nine billion in that time.

“If indeed genetic improvement for wheat grain yield has slowed or peaked in the Great Plains any further increase in the supply of wheat from the region can only derived from the application of techniques to enhance production,” the authors wrote. “…However, adaptation of currently available production techniques on a wider scale could boost absolute wheat productivity from the Great Plains.”

They said that one possibility for boosting yields is to use more productive land in the region, where rainfall is higher or with access to irrigation – areas where maize and soybeans are currently grown.

“Use of these more productive areas for wheat production could, temporarily at least, continue to meet world demands for wheat. In the long term, however, effective strategies to increase the genetic gain for wheat grain yield must be identified,” they wrote.

According to a report from the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), US Wheat Associates, the North American Millers’ Association, the Independent Bakers Association and the Wheat Foods Council released last year, the differential between net returns for wheat and other crops is growing. The organizations argue that production may continue to decline unless biotechnology is used to improve wheat's competitiveness.

Historically, however, genetically modified (GM) wheat has faced strong opposition from consumers and the food industry. As a result there has been little investment in GM wheat and there is currently no commercial production of genetically modified wheat anywhere in the world.

In May last year, the debate was reopened when organizations from the US, Canadian and Australian wheat industries released a statement announcing their intention to push for the commercialization of GM wheat crops.

Since then, Monsanto has said it will increase its research into genetically modified wheat, with a focus on drought and pest-resistant technologies. The company has said that biotech wheat should be on the market within eight to ten years.

Source: Crop Science

Vol. 50, No. 5, pp. 1882-1890

“Genetic Improvement in Winter Wheat Yields in the Great Plains of North America”

Authors: Robert A. Graybosch and C. James Peterson

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