Kansas State University officials are hailing a recent partnership with food giant General Mills as a win-win proposition that ultimately will benefit the state's farmers and consumers worldwide.
The two groups have formed a research agreement to develop wheat varieties with improved nutritional, milling and baking qualities. The multi-year project will pump more than $400,000 into wheat development at the university.
"Kansas State has unique capabilities to connect wheat research all the way from genomics to milling and baking, which makes us a strong partner for these types of research projects, said Jesse Poland, K-State assistant professor of plant pathology.
Poland is also director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics – a five-year, $5 million project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development – and associate director of the university's Wheat Genetics Resource Center.
Since forming the agreement, General Mills has placed two full-time scientists in the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center on the north end of Kansas State's Manhattan campus to help with this and other projects.
"The overall goal of this project is to identify and develop improved wheat varieties that have superior nutritional and processing quality, said Eric Jackson, a geneticist and systems biologist with General Mills Crop Biosciences, and one of the two scientists now in Manhattan. "It's our belief that this approach will increase the quality of consumer products through decreasing additives in processing, and increasing the utility and function of whole grain products.
"The expectation, Poland noted, "is that Kansas wheat farmers will benefit directly from this research. Through these projects, we are focused on developing and delivering wheat varieties with superior quality that [might] be grown as high-value, contract acres.
He added that while new varieties would help to increase yields, researchers also intend to develop wheat that contains more of the vitamins and minerals that are needed in developing parts of the world, thus addressing a global food challenge.
"With consumer food values changing and popular trends leading the consumer away from grains, General Mills thought it was a critical time to expand our research and develop a plan for the future of wheat, Jackson said. "In partnership with Kansas State, we're connecting wheat variety development with targeted, novel consumer quality. In this project, we will implement focused approaches for characterizing and improving milling and baking qualities in wheat, combined with improving its nutritional quality.
This is not the first time Kansas State and General Mills have worked together. Poland said the university has provided expertise in milling to General Mills for many years: "We are now connecting this research across the spectrum, he said.
The research agreement is a dollar-for-dollar match, with both groups also providing expertise and staff time toward variety development. Kansas State is providing money awarded by the Kansas Department of Commerce to leverage strengths in food and agriculture.
Perhaps best known by consumers for its ready-to-eat cereals, General Mills markets over 100 brands in more than 100 countries and six continents. The company's history dates to 1880 with its signature Gold Medal flour, still the No. 1 selling flour brand in the United States. In fiscal 2014, the company reported global net sales of $17.9 billion.