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Researching our daily bread

U.K. researchers are working to increase our global wheat yield and nutrition

Wheat provides one fifth of human calories, but its yield growth has been on the decline since the 1980s. Researchers in the United Kingdom are trying to solve some of the world’s food security challenges by improving wheat productivity.

Their goal, says Dr. Malcolm Hawkesford of leading British institute Rothamsted Research, is to increase wheat yield potential to 20 tonnes per hectare in 20 years — the equivalent of approximately 486 bushels per acre.

The record wheat yield for the U.K. sits at 14.3 tonnes per hectare, set in 2013, and the world record of 15.6 tonnes per hectare was set by a New Zealand farmer in 2010.

“The current average farm yield for wheat in the U.K. is approximately 8.4 tonnes per hectare,” said Dr. Hawkesford in a presentation at the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ congress held in the U.K. in September. “Obviously our project has a U.K. focus, but the outputs will be available widely. World wheat production is only about three tonnes per hectare.”

To meet demands presented by a burgeoning world population expected to hit nine billion by 2050, the average annual increase in global wheat yields must almost double from its current level of one per cent to 1.7 per cent.

Hawkesford stressed that his team aren’t plant breeders or focused on agronomy, but rather are working on producing knowledge and tools, such as delivering genetic markers for the improvement of wheat performance.

A key initiative is the 20:20 Wheat project, which is funded through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and includes four research clusters.

Cluster 1 is focused on maximizing yield through genetic improvements, such as increasing the crop’s photosynthesis capabilities and making it more efficient at how it uses nutrients.

Cluster 2 is working to maintain wheat’s yield potential by protecting it against pests and diseases like fusarium, septoria leaf blotch and “take-all”, three leading pathogens affecting wheat yield in the U.K. and elsewhere. Conquering them could boost average yields by five to 10 per cent, estimate Rothamsted researchers.

Cluster 3 is determining how the soil and plant roots interact and how that interaction affects how the crop takes up the water and essential nutrients its needs to grow. This could increase yield potentials by 10 to 18 per cent.

In the fourth cluster, researchers will be using crop models to study complex wheat traits, such as resource use efficiency, and explore how wheat types may perform under different climate change scenarios.

A separate cluster of research at Rothamsted is focused on working to optimise the nutrient values of wheat and brassica (crops like broccoli, cabbage, kale, turnip, Brussels sprout and mustard) seeds.

Rothamsted researchers and scientists from other institutions to find new genetic variations by performing experimental crosses of wheat “parents,” such as wild wheat, landraces and other grasses.

They will use the results to create new types of bread wheat with better resistance against diseases and pests, more drought, salt and heat tolerance, and higher yields.

The resulting resources will be made available to plant breeders and farmers worldwide.

Canada’s contribution to the wheat genome sequencing work is an $8.5 million project called Canadian Triticum Advancement through Genomics, which is aimed at developing genomic tools and increasing genomic capacity in wheat breeding programs.

In 2011, agriculture ministers from the G20 countries, including the U.K. and Canada, committed to establishing an international initiative to co-ordinate worldwide research efforts in wheat genetics, genomics, physiology, breeding and agronomy.

The Wheat Initiative currently includes public research and funding organizations from 12 countries, as well as two international research centres and seven private global wheat breeding companies.

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