By Connor Lynch
Wheat farmers are a step closer to getting those crazy yields they thought were only possible for corn. An international research team announced last month it had cracked wheat’s genetic code, the missing key to serious genetic improvement.
It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s a big revelation with big implications, said Real Agriculture agronomist and wheat expert Peter Johnson.
While new varieties are likely at least five years out, Johnson said, genetic improvements could be showing up much sooner than that. Said Johnson: “Don’t rule out a major impact in two or three years.”
As it stands, corn yield growth, year over year in Ontario, has been around two bushels/acre. Wheat has been about half that.
“We have trouble getting growers to include wheat because it is not as profitable as corn and soybeans. Do I see this changing that? Absolutely.”
The International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium is a group of researchers from 19 countries who’ve been working since 2005, trying to map the plant’s genes. They announced last month they’d mapped the entire genetic code of a type of bread wheat, the most commonly grown type in the world which includes hard and soft red winter wheat, Ontario’s most popular wheat varieties.
Mapping the genetic code of a plant is a vital step in developing better-yielding crops. Mapping the genetic code means isolating what bits of genetic information are responsible for certain traits, like eye colour in humans or fusarium resistance in wheat. Knowing that lets breeders accurately breed for certain characteristics, like higher yields, drought or heat tolerance, and countless others.
Research in wheat has lagged behind. Johnson estimated wheat research spending is about 10 per cent of what’s doled out for corn or soybeans. Companies are less interested in wheat research because wheat pollinates itself. Farmers can reuse seed and don’t have to buy more.
The world’s most commonly-grown food crop may sound simple. But wheat is a fantastically complicated organism. It cross-bred with two other grasses thousands of years ago, making an already difficult job of mapping its genes three times bigger.