Source: Bayer CropScience

You will find it in everything from pasta and wholemeal bread to Swiss rolls and Christmas cakes: wheat is the foundation of a major part of our diet — and has been so for thousands of years. But despite better yield and quality, cereal is not keeping up with the growing needs of the world’s population, as demand is outstripping supply. Forest fires in Russia and floods in Australia have further reduced yields and, consequently, wheat prices have doubled over the course of a year. Speculators are also driving up prices. This is why research scientists and plant breeding specialists are looking for new varieties and ways of making wheat more productive and at the same time more resistant to drought and disease.

Wheat: one of humanity's oldest crops
Wheat is one of the most important food plants in the world. The pressure to perform is growing stronger every year because the world's population is rising, leading to greater demand for bread, biscuits and pasta. If the forecast of the American Ministry of Agriculture is correct, wheat consumption in 2010/11 will exceed the wheat harvest by around 19 million tons.

The human race will consume 666 million tons of wheat in the form of bread, cakes or noodles — or have fed it to animals as over half of the world's wheat crop is used for animal feed. More and more people are eating meat, especially in the emerging and developing countries. Statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicate that the demand for wheat will reach 907 million tons in 2050. Cereals are also used to make beer, whisky, industrial alcohol, wheat starch and adhesives.

Wheat production must be stepped up urgently in order to secure food supplies for the world's growing population. That is easier said than done as this highly prized crop is already grown on around a quarter of the world’s arable land. "We need to make individual plants more productive because the amount of arable land available per capita is declining and the gap between supply and demand is continuing to increase," comments Marcus Weidler, who is in charge of cereals at Bayer CropScience. This approach has already paid off in the case of soy, canola and other oilseed crops where investment in research and breeding has led to significant increases in the productivity of these crops. Adds Weidler, "Some crop protection products also help safeguard and increase yields."

Shortages are driving up the wheat price

Wheat is an old friend to researchers and breeders: the oldest cereals found on the fertile Euphrates and Tigris plains, the areas where arable farming was first practiced, date back to seven thousand years before Christ. From here, the plant travelled to Europe and later to America as well. Wheat is now grown throughout almost the entire world with major production regions in Australia, China, the EU, India, the area around the Black Sea and North America.

If unusual climate events such as extreme drought or flooding occur in these regions, the consequences for the global supply of wheat are immediate: for example, the "drought of the century" and forest fires which hit Russia during the past year led to dramatic falls in the size of the cereal harvest, as did the recent flooding in parts of Australia. "Dry weather in Latin America and the west of the Great Plains region in the USA could further accentuate this problem," says Dr. Claire Schaffnit-Chatterjee of Deutsche Bank Research.

The threat of shortages has an impact on the price of wheat, which has doubled in the past year and is now three times as high as it was in 2000. Abdolreza Abbassian, an economist working at the FAO, warned at the start of the year that “prices are likely to remain high for several months”. However, the weather is not the only factor that interferes with the relationship between supply and demand, which is always precarious when it comes to products obtained from nature. Other factors include rising incomes and growing population figures, as well as the scarcity of land, water and raw materials for use in fertilizers. Speculators make the situation even worse as they try to profit from rising agricultural commodity prices, pushing them ever higher. Better yields could go some way towards alleviating the situation.

Shortage of nutrients or extremely dry weather reduce yields
Farmers have a choice of more than 130 varieties of seed for winter wheat and 20 for summer wheat. Three-quarters of the annual production comes from winter wheat, which is sown around October. Summer wheat is sown in spring and so does not need a dormant phase during the winter, but it is less productive. Winter wheat plants need plentiful supplies of nutrients and water around the end of March when the ears are starting to form, a process which is at first invisible on the outside. They should also be protected from stress as much as possible at this time: "Otherwise, a shortage of nutrients or extremely dry weather will mean that plants produce shorter ears with fewer grains, so lowering the yield," explains Weidler. Farmers tend to apply fertilizers up to three times and the third and last application of nitrogen in early summer is critical for the grain's protein content: the more nitrogen is available to the wheat plant, the more protein it is able to store in its grains.

Wheat is harvested some time between the end of July and the start of September, with the precise date varying according to the climate, variety, and supply of nutrients and water. The timing of the harvest also affects the quality of the flour: wheat that is harvested late under wet conditions, for example, is less suitable for processing.

One hectare of wheat can produce about 9,250 loaves of brown bread
The cereal that grows in the field and is harvested each year is always different, as the weather conditions are never identical. The skill of the millers who process the grain lies in their ability to produce uniform quality flour by carefully selecting different batches of cereal. The amount and quality of the protein in the endosperm are the key criteria that determine baking quality. A protein content of 13 percent or more is regarded as high, and this type of flour is used to bake stollen, for example, a German Christmas specialty. Bakers wanting to make biscuits or pastry, on the other hand, use flour with a protein content of less than 11.5 percent.

However, creating varieties with higher protein content is only one of the goals towards which breeders are working so hard. "We also want to increase plants' yields, make them more tolerant of drought and improve the efficiency of fertilizer use," explains Dr. Joachim Schneider, Head of BioScience at Bayer CropScience. This is because climate change experts are broadly in agreement that extreme weather conditions will occur more frequently in the future.

At present, a hectare of wheat is equivalent to about 9,250 one-kilogram loaves of brown bread. In the long term this will not be sufficient to meet the growing world demand. This is why conventional breeding needs to be combined with modern biotechnology processes to equip wheat to meet the challenges of the future

The FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System provides regular updates on the world food supply situation. Crop Prospects and Food Situation reports are published every two months.

The German-language Web site "", operated by the German plant genome program (GABI), also contains information about the vital crop plant wheat and current breeding research.

The Web site of the European Mycotoxin Awareness Network offers scientific information and news to the food industry, consumers and scientists.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) produces statistics on wheat. 

The German Federal Research Institute of Nutrition and Food, based in Detmold, assesses the processing quality of German bread cereals and conducts research into the improvement, isolation and enrichment of components that are of dietary physiological relevance. The Web site is mainly in German but has some sections in English. 

From field to plate: the entire life cycle of bread production is explained in detail on the consumer section of the German nutritional information service "Was wir essen."