The Wheat Makers
Global Strategies for High-Yield Cereal Crops
Wheat supply is growing at half the pace of global demand. Future production faces fresh challenges from climate change.
Bayer and its partners bring new technology to agriculture to create innovative crop solutions.
Of particular interest are the genes responsible for yield and resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses.
Wheat is a staple food for the majority of our world’s population: two billion people rely on it. But farmers are struggling to meet the huge demand for this product.
To meet the challenge, researchers at Bayer’s Crop Science division are working with a global network of breeding stations, crop research facilities and external partners to develop robust wheat plants that are optimized for local conditions. “If things stay as they are, we will struggle to meet the demand of the growing global population,” says Steve Patterson, Global Crop Manager Cereals at Bayer Crop Science.
Sustainable Plants, Higher Yields
In just a few years Bayer has built up a global network of in-house breeding stations and external partners in order to develop and breed plants which provide higher yields under local climate and soil conditions. They are also better able to withstand extreme weather and stress. Scientists are working intensively to develop new cultivars at seven plant breeding stations: in Canada, Germany, France, Ukraine, Australia and two stations in the United States. This global breeding program involves over 400,000 test plots and 8,000 different elite experimental varieties.
Agricultural scientists are pursuing several strategies, including the breeding of more robust and high-yielding hybrids. These are produced when two pure lines selected for quite specific traits are crossed with one another. The first-generation (F1) hybrid seed delivers significantly higher yields than the parent varieties, particularly in stressful environments. To produce such hybrids, breeders have to suppress pollen formation in one parent line by making it sterile. The few programs making F1 varieties of wheat today use chemicals to do this. These chemicals are only approved for use in a few countries. Bayer researchers are trying to find new solutions to produce sterile plants. This would pave the way for the benefits of hybrid wheat to be more widely available and to contribute to both higher and more stable yields for farmers in the future.
“We also use more conventional breeding processes to combine the desired traits – for instance, crossing particularly resistant wild wheat with modern, high-yielding varieties,” Patterson explains. The experts at Bayer are using new technologies which greatly accelerate the breeding process.
“Researchers are particularly interested in identifying the genes responsible for yield and resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses,” says Dr. Catherine Feuillet, a wheat geneticist who leads the Trait Research department at Crop Science. Over the past ten years, she has devoted herself to a particularly daunting task: deciphering the wheat genome. Knowing which genes are responsible for yield will make it possible to optimize combinations through breeding and engineer an increase in efficiency of the pathways leading to higher yields, Feuillet says. But the wheat genome is five times larger than the human genome and even more complex.
Innovative Wheat Production
As part of the effort experts at Bayer are collaborating with a variety of external partners, including biotech companies such as KeyGene in the Netherlands, the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the National Agricultural Research and Development Institute in Romania. The University of Nebraska, South Dakota State University and -Texas A&M University, which have expertise in drought-resistant varieties, and Kansas State University, a world-renowned center for characterizing and using wild wheat varieties, are also on board.
But the future cannot be ensured purely by developing premium wheat varieties. New, more effective crop protection efforts are also part of Bayer’s agricultural strategy, as is working closely with farmers. Digital technology is also increasingly being used. Sensors and cameras mounted on farm machinery provide valuable data about the soil, moisture content, plant growth and yields. “With new varieties, effective crop protection products and optimal management strategies, wheat yields could again significantly increase,” Patterson says. This would amount to a revolution in wheat — and make a vital contribution to global food security.