Wheat Research Attracting Investors
After decades of playing runner up to corn, soybeans and cotton when it came to private investment in research, wheat appears to be coming into its own. Major companies are hard at work developing new wheat varieties, including renewed interest in hybrid wheat. Universities, state wheat producer associations, wheat processors and seed companies are creating new entities to expand access to new technologies. And new technologies themselves are creating new opportunities for developing superior lines of wheat.
“Private sector interest in wheat has really picked up, and it’s about time,” said Ernie Minton, associate director of research,
Kansas State University (KSU) Research and Extension. “State wheat growers groups and land grant universities have been doing the heavy lifting for wheat research and development. While wheat yields have grown, their increase has lagged behind corn and soybean yield gains. At the same time, improved crop genetics has allowed those crops to extend into what has traditionally been wheat country.”
Given that backdrop, why are Syngenta, Bayer, Pioneer and others investing in wheat research as never before? One reason is that demand for wheat is projected to increase by 60 percent by 2050. Another is that new technologies, such as the doubled haploid process, reduce the time and cost of developing new varieties. Cost effective hybrid seed may now be possible. Growers will get hybrid vigor, and seed producers will know that one year’s crop can’t be used as seed the following year. Just as with corn, producers will have to return to the commercial well, guaranteeing wheat genetics companies a return on investment.
That return on investment is key to the new interest. Although winter wheat producers in the East have shown a willingness to buy seed each year, a tendency to brown bag seed in the Great Plains and upper Great Plains states has limited seed company interest. In the case of DuPont Pioneer, the result has been continued introduction of new and better varieties in the eastern U.S. When the company withdrew from the Great Plains states, it turned germplasm over to university breeders. Development of a large-scale wheat hybridization method has the company back in the research phase of developing hybrid wheat for the Great Plains states and, like its competitors, back at the door of the land grant universities.
“We are the repositories of wheat germplasm for our states,” said Minton. “You can’t go to land grant universities in the Corn Belt for wheat germplasm that works in the Great Plains.”
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