Wheat breeder spells out the traits challenge

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Plant breeding companies around the world are working to lift the yields and imbue crops, particularly cereals, with more environmentally robust traits, but scientists say it is a long, slow, process.

Higher-yielding and drought-tolerant wheat varieties are in the research and development pipeline, but a representative from one of the largest international plant breeding companies says it may be 10 years before such advanced biotech wheat is available commercially.

Key Points

  • Population Growth is fuelling global demand for grain.
  • Plant-breeding companies Monsanto and Inter-Grain are adopting advanced breeding technoloigies to develop yield-increasing and high-performing varieties
  • Monsanto will apply the technology it uses to produce high-yielding, drought-tolerant corn in its wheta-development program
Sean Gardner, global wheat lead for Monsanto USA, told growers and advisers at the 2011 Perth Agribusiness Crop Updates that breeding biotech wheat varieties with yield and stress traits took a lot of time, was expensive and difficult.

“We’ve targeted these kind of traits in crops like corn and we hope to work on them in wheat but they take decades to develop,” he said.

Mr Gardner, who also heads Monsanto’s recently acquired WestBred wheat seed business and the company’s Global Commercial Wheat Strategy, said global demand for wheat in 2030 was forecast to be 40 per cent more than it was in 2000.

“If you think about dryland wheat agriculture in Western Australia, that challenge is enormous,” he said. “The good news is breeding companies are working to develop technologies to address issues like yield and productivity.”

He said growers and the industry as a whole needed to produce more grain from the same footprint because of the simple fact that “we’re not creating more land”.

Mr Gardner said that in wheat, Monsanto was working to develop technologies that would help increase yields and improve nitrogen use efficiency.

He said the company was also pursuing drought-tolerant crops generally, and adding more health traits to soybeans.

“At the same time, we’re mindful that we’re generating grain not just for food but also for fuel and fibre.”

Mr Gardner said his company had set a target to double yields in the US for corn, soybeans and cotton between 2000 and 2030. To achieve this, he said, Monsanto was using a combination of methods such as breeding, genetically enhanced traits, and agronomic systems. “A whole toolkit is going to be required.”

However, he noted that when looking at Australia or the US, the rate of annual genetic gain in wheat had trended below one per cent. “But what if we could get to three per cent?” he said. “We think we can do it with collaborations and partners.”

One such collaboration is a joint venture with Australian wheat breeding company InterGrain in WA.

“Even though our relationship with InterGrain is young, the breeding groups have worked quickly to start exchanging germplasm between Australia and the US, which will create new value for both US and Australian growers,” he said.

According to Mr Gardner, breeders at InterGrain were keen to use high-throughput, advanced marker-assisted breeding techniques, which could result in an inflection point in the rate of genetic gain from wheat breeding in 10 to 20 years’ time.

Early work by Monsanto had focused on adding traits for herbicide tolerance and insect control to plants, but current work is focused on finding traits to increase yields while at the same time lifting tolerance to stresses such as drought and low-nitrogen soils.

“Yield and stress traits are extremely complex, there are a huge number of interactions going on,” he said. “We do not believe we will have a biotech trait for wheat in commerce in the next 10 years and it may take longer.”

However, he said, there was cause for optimism. Monsanto’s first drought-tolerant corn is due for launch in 2012 and he said that much of the technology used to bring biotech corn to market would be deployed to produce high-yielding biotech wheat varieties with tolerance to drought.

- By Nicole Baxter

More information: InterGrain, www.intergrain.com; www.grdc.com.au/IGP00002

GRDC Project Code IGP00002

Region National, Overseas