French Baguette, Italian Panini, or American pancakes – all are made with one main ingredient: wheat. Cereals are our morning toast, our lunch sandwiches and our Sunday afternoon cake. Especially in Europe and America, wheat is the staple of our daily diet. Without it we would all go quite hungry. The global demand for wheat is on the rise – and this is about more than just population growth.
“With more people on the planet, the welcome reduction in poverty in many parts of the world and dietary changes leading to new markets, we need to produce significantly more wheat than we are right now,” says Steve Patterson, Global Crop Manager Cereals at Bayer. Today, global wheat production and demand is balanced: we produce as much as we need and eat. But in relatively newly industrialized countries like China or Korea more and more people yearn for Western-style food. Experts predict that wheat could cost between 40 and 70 percent more, in real terms, than today by 2050. People in many parts of the world will struggle to pay that price for their food.
Producing more wheat is not simply accomplished. Farmers around the world cope with pests and adverse weather effects. The challenges increase as you push productivity to higher levels per area. According to experts, growers in South Asia could suffer an estimated yield loss of 21 to 34 percent by 2050 due to increased temperatures. Weather problems also occur in traditional wheat-growing countries in the Northern hemisphere. “We seem to have had longer periods of dry and wet weather in the past few years,” says Colin Woodward, who manages an estate that has grown wheat since the 1960s. Every year he plants about 350 hectares of winter wheat on the fields of his farm, Great Tew Estate, in central England. Producing much more is difficult for him. “Wheat yields are on a plateau because of these adverse weather patterns and additional constraints like slugs, septoria, and black-grass,” Woodward explains.
We seem to have had longer periods of dry and wet weather in the past few years.
In wet seasons, slugs can be a real problem for him, especially when wheat production follows oilseed rape. The farmer reduced his risk by growing oilseed rape one year in five and using crop protection products. On the other hand, fungal diseases like septoria and yellow rust are harder to control as races become more aggressive. Here as well, agricultural solutions such as the fungicide Aviator Xpro™ from Bayer helped Woodward cope with the problem in the intense disease years of 2012 and 2014. Today, he also chooses wheat varieties that are more resistant to septoria. But the greatest challenge in the last three years was black-grass: “The weed is becoming resistant to most contact herbicides”, the farmer explains. “So, we use cultivation techniques, such as improving field drainage, ploughing and planting spring crops before sowing another crop of wheat. It would really help if we had herbicides that could control the resistant black-grass.”
The examples show: “There is no single solution to the challenges we are facing,” says Patterson. “Instead, we need to combine several different methods to increase and secure high yields worldwide”. Traditional methods like crop rotation, although very helpful, can only be part of the longer-term solution. Experts from Bayer are therefore looking for new solutions that can help farmers to increase their yields – regardless of the specific climate, weed, pest or disease problems. They seek new herbicides and fungicides to overcome resistance problems. Other crop protection solutions will adopt a completely novel approach: “Future crop protection solutions will target insects and pathogens both on a chemical and biological level-combatting them through different modes of action that complement each other,” adds Patterson. “The sum of it all is about using all the tools available to develop integrated solutions.”
Future weed, disease and pest management will not be based on crop protection and biological methods alone. This is where Bayer’s breeding team comes in: specific plant characteristics, also called traits, can help the plant to better cope with adverse environmental conditions, weather effects such as drought or heat. Similarly, plants are bred to achieve higher intrinsic yields or tolerate new herbicide products. Seven breeding stations in the key cereal regions of the world, in Germany, Belgium, France, the Ukraine, the US, Canada and Australia are currently using a wide range of new techniques such as marker-assisted breeding to create solutions tailored to each countries’ needs and weather conditions.
Our Daily Bread
“In the past, using traditional breeding methods you had to plant the seed and wait for the plant to grow,” recalls Guenter Welz, wheat-breeding expert of Bayer in Germany. Breeders needed almost artistic skills to deduce a plant’s traits from its appearance. “Today, genetic analysis enables us to identify valuable characteristics at an earlier stage and speed-up the breeding process,” explains Welz. Identifying the important traits in germplasm is used to develop varieties with the right characteristics, adapted for the local market, wherever that is in the world.
Bayer is looking to the future potential of Hybrid wheat. Wheat hybrids deliver higher yields particularly in environments that face stress conditions during the season. Besides, they will be more robust than common inbred varieties, delivering greater stability of yield across the seasons. “Ultimately, the integration of these new technologies with good crop agronomy will help us to enhance yield and yield stability for farmers around the world,” says Patterson. And this in turn will help people around the world to have sufficient supplies of wheat and to be able to afford their bread, toast, sandwiches and cake.
Genetic analysis enables us to identify valuable characteristics at an earlier stage and speed-up the breeding process.
Cultivation of Wheat