Wheat lagging as world's farmers turn to GM

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John Harvey GRDC executive manager for varieties has just finished an overseas fact-finding mission to gauge the status of international grains R&D, particularly as it stands for wheat.
Although it is the world’s third most popular cereal, wheat risks being left behind by researchers and growers as the increasing ease of producing GM crops such as corn and soybeans starts to occupy more and more land.
For this reason it is already being referred to as the ‘orphan crop’ in North America, says Mr Harvey, who travelled to the US, Canada, and the Middle East to collect first-hand knowledge of grains research trends and influences.
Mr Harvey says the trip was part of the GRDC’s efforts to keep the Australian industry abreast of what overseas competitors are doing, and seeking out information that could benefit the Australian industry.
However, it was wheat’s ‘orphan’ status that dominated the 40th annual general meeting (AGM) of the Canada Grains Council – an organisation that represents growers through to end users and government agencies.
Mr Harvey says the focus was clearly on the well-developed research pipelines that now exist for corn and soybeans, but not for wheat. For example, Monsanto said it aims to double yields of corn, soybeans, canola and cotton by 2030 and there is now wide adoption of these crops by farmers.
A grains specialist from North Dakota State University, Bill Wilson, told the AGM that wheat was losing its competitiveness. He said yield growth rates for corn from 1940 to today were 1.23 per cent a year, while wheat lagged well behind at less than one per cent.
With predictions that the world’s population was likely to grow from six billion to nine billion in just 30 to 40 years, meeting global food demands based on currently available land meant yields needed to increase by 2.5 per cent a year. For this to occur, Syngenta’s David Morgan told the AGM that GM varieties were critical.
Along with concerns that wheat is falling behind, there was considerable discussion about trade issues, particularly in relation to approval for GM traits.
At the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), also visited by Mr Harvey and GRDC colleagues Vince Logan and Stuart Kearns, biotechnology remains an important focus.
“Breeding at ICARDA has traditionally been through conventional means,” he said. However, he said the centre was now including more biotechnology in its breeding processes, including implementing a molecular marker program.
It is also building a bio-containment area to develop and test GM crops.
“Biotechnology is an important area for ICARDA, especially in the areas of complex diseases such as ascochyta and fast-evolving pathogens such as Ug99,” Mr Harvey said.

More information: John Harvey, 02 6166 4500, email