What is in this article?:
- Separating wheat from chaff at the genetic level
- More and better wheat
- USDA estimates that global farmers grew 681 million tons of wheat in 2011. Only corn and rice had bigger harvests.
- Biotechnology breakthrough taps key parts of the wheat genome.
- Essential biotech advance will allow producers to grow more and better wheat.
More and better wheat
This advance hardly could have come at a more fitting time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that global farmers grew 681 million tons of wheat in 2011. Only corn and rice had bigger harvests.
Amid this modern bounty, droughts have caused the price of wheat to bounce up and down, creating economic and political instability. Many experts trace the recent tumult in the Middle East—including the ongoing civil war in Syria—to a sudden spike in the cost of wheat and other foods.
Wheat is a hardy plant that can grow in semi-arid environments. This helpful trait accounts for much of its usefulness and popularity. Ironically, the plant’s toughness also puts it on the front lines of climate change. When droughts strike, wheat often feels the pressure first.
By taking advantage of wheat’s genome, we can apply the same tools of biotechnology that have launched a global revolution in agriculture. In the United States and many other parts of the world, the vast majority of corn and soybeans is genetically enhanced to fight weeds and pests.
With wheat, biotechnology can help us take a plant that already makes efficient use of moisture and build increased drought resistance right into its fundamental makeup. This will make wheat even more durable during dry spells.
This is an essential development, if we hope to keep up with global population growth and also make sure that people enjoy access to affordable food. Geneticist Michael Bevan of the John Innes Center in the United Kingdom put the matter bluntly in the Wall Street Journal: “We need to double wheat yields.”
Decoding wheat’s genome is an indispensible step on the way to meeting this vital goal.
At some point, perhaps one of these brainy scientists will do us all a favor and insert a special trait into the next generation of wheat plants: One that bakes the bread and slices the loaves at the same time.
Terry Wanzek is a wheat, corn and soybean farmer in North Dakota. He serves as a N.D. state senator and volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).