USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced a new and significant investment of public funds in wheat research work.

The award from NIFA’s competitive grant program, Agriculture and Food Research Initiative or AFRI, is worth $25 million over five years and will incorporate work from 56 scientists from 28 institutions, led by Dr. Jorge Dubcovsky of the University of California at Davis and Dr. Gary Muehlbauer at the University of Minnesota.

Roger Beachy, NIFA’s director, announced the Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP) award at the University of California-Davis on Wednesday.

NAWG immediately released a statement applauding the announcement and USDA’s commitment to wheat research.

“Enhancing public and private research is at the heart of NAWG’s strategic plan, and this is an exciting infusion to our public wheat research system,” said NAWG Chief Executive Officer Dana Peterson.

“These dollars will return significant benefits to farmers by developing tools to adapt varieties planted by growers across the country, which is a significant step in the right direction as we seek to raise wheat yields 20 percent by 2018.”

The goal of the project is to develop methods to produce new varieties that minimize the damage to crops from stresses associated with climate change.

The long-term objective is a 10 percent reduction in both nitrogen and water use in barley and wheat production, though the project will also focus on traits related to fungal diseases and low temperature tolerance.

To achieve these goals, the AFRI project will build on the rapidly decreasing costs of genetic markers and other tools to accelerate breeding cycles, improving publicly-available germplasm, standardizing methods for high-throughput field evaluation and integrating genetic and field measurements into public databases for use by all breeding programs.

A systematic genotypic and phenotypic characterization of varieties in the National Small Grains Collection (NSGC) and commercially available wheat and barley lines will accelerate the introduction of novel non-GMO genes into cereal breeding programs.

The NSGC provides access to the ancestors of modern wheat and barley, which carry a wide diversity of genes for crop improvement previously underutilized by plant breeders because of insufficient funding and genomic information.

The project will also facilitate training for a new generation of plant breeders in the most advanced breeding technologies, which is critical for wheat research development in the coming decades.

NAWG works with organizations and individuals throughout the wheat chain to demonstrate the value of wheat research, and NAWG, U.S. Wheat Associates and affiliated state organizations from both groups provided a letter of support for the project application.

Wheat research is a crucial but often under-funded aspect of our country’s – and the world’s – food security.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated 20 percent of calories consumed by humans come from wheat.

Still, with traditional breeding, one new variety adapted to a specific geographic area and wheat class can take more than a decade to develop and get into the hands of wheat producers.

And, unlike that in other major crops including corn and soybeans, wheat research has been disproportionately dependent on public funds for basic research and breeding. This is changing, however, as more private companies announce new investments and partnerships with public university programs to work toward both conventional and, eventually, biotech wheat varieties.

For more about NAWG’s research work, including the letter sent by wheat organizations in support of the grant, please visit www.wheatworld.org/issues/research.

More about the CAP award announced this week from NIFA is available at http://www.csrees.usda.gov/newsroom/news/2011news/01121_afri_davis.html.

More from UC-Davis is at http://www.news.ucdavis.edu/search/news_detail.lasso?id=9726.