The push for biotech wheat
June 5, 2012
by Josh Sosland
Significant investments have been made in recent years by Bayer CropScience and other crop science companies in both biotechnology and non-biotechnology for wheat. The widening gap between sluggish yield growth and heavy population growth will require additional investments in both approaches, said Marcus Weidler, global crop manager, cereals, at Bayer.
Weidler said the compelling need to narrow this gap is what prompted Bayer CropScience to launch a major global wheat initiative in 2009. The company, with €7.255 billion ($9.6 billion) in annual sales, has over the past two years announced a series of acquisitions, alliances and milestones in connection with the wheat initiative.
From a global perspective, Weidler said acreage devoted to wheat is shrinking, something he said should not be happening given worldwide needs.
“If you look at the challenges surrounding the sustainable production of wheat, you will see wheat as the main staple food crop,” he said. “It is surprising that acreage is shrinking, especially in the United States.
“Global production of wheat has been growing between 0.7% and 1% per year, while population is growing 2% per year. So, you can see we will have a problem producing enough wheat to feed a hungry planet.”
Beyond humanitarian concerns, plenty of geopolitical issues are tied to wheat, Weidler said.
“Among the main importing countries for grain, for wheat are Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Indonesia,” he said. “The percentage of income people spend on buying wheat or wheat flour is a real issue. It’s even a greater issue if you think further about the price increase for wheat over the past years and what it means for those people.”
GEOPOLITICAL, CLIMATE CONCERNS
In addition to the attractiveness of alternative crops, such as corn and soybeans, the acreage shrinkage is attributable to problems specific to wheat, a crop Weidler said is very sensitive to climatic change. For instance, he cited data suggesting global yields between 1980 and 2008 were lowered by nearly 6% because of the temperature and precipitation trends.
“An increase of 1 degree centigrade will reduce yields by 10%,” he said.
Drilling deeper into the effects of climate on wheat yields, Weidler offered two recent examples.
“Last year, in Western Europe, we had losses not only because of drought, but also because of heat,” he said. “Wheat is very sensitive during flowering to high temperatures. In some areas, the plant embryos died resulting in complete losses.
“On the other extreme, in Eastern Europe, an increasingly important wheat growing area, Ukraine predicts an 8-million-tonne reduction compared to 2011 because of winterkill in this season. What we observed over the last year was not about increases or decreases in temperatures, but extremes. Wheat is very sensitive.”
What occurred in Western Europe offers an illustration of the potential and limits of conventional breeding, Weidler said.
“With time and skillful breeding, wheat can be made more resilient to heat during flowering,” he said. “This is something that was achieved in the Texas panhandle with many years of breeding. But there is a barrier, a limit, to what may be achieved without bringing in the tools of modern biotechnology.
“Generally, it’s safe to say the whole industry is working on two ways forward: through genetic modification and the non-GM route. Some of the challenges can be addressed by applying modern molecular breeding approaches, but only to a limited degree and with limited speed. These approaches likely won’t allow yields to keep up with population growth. We believe biotechnology will enable us to achieve the improvements we need more quickly.”
Weidler identified three related principal targets for wheat improvement — yields, yield stability and fertilizer use efficiency. “Everyone is focusing on these,” he said. “We are trying to arrive at answers through non-GM solutions, but we want to be prepared if we don’t achieve the progress we need.”
The development and prospective introduction of bioengineered wheat varieties remains a long-term goal, with commercialization likely only sometime beyond 2020, Weidler said. Beyond technological hurdles yet to be cleared, regulatory requirements and consumer acceptance are challenges as well, he said.
While the population in Europe continues to be reluctant to accept biotech food products, another potential acceptance challenge has emerged in recent years, Weidler said.
“Acceptance of biotech-enhanced wheat in the Islamic world will be key,” he said. “As I pointed out, some of the most important importers for wheat are Islamic countries. If biotech wheat is not considered halal (religiously permissible for use/consumption), no one will eat it.
“Unlike corn and soybeans, primarily used for feed, here we are talking about food, especially in the importing countries. There is some discussion in the Islamic world. At the moment, there appears to be no clear-cut guidance from religious leaders. If the gene inserted into wheat is coming from a halal organism, there are indications it could be considered acceptable. But if the genetic source was not halal, that might not be the case. There are more complicated discussions, but that is the key element.”
Progress in access to efforts in biotechnology will require overcoming regulatory policy hurdles, with many areas of the world still uncertain how to treat biotech crops. Other challenges are technological — developing second generation traits — and gaining their timely global acceptance.
While acceptance and regulatory policy hurdles are considerable, technology poses challenges, too, Weidler said. The fact that bioengineered corn, soybeans and other crops have been on the market for years may create a false impression that biotech advances in wheat will be fairly simple to achieve.
“When you think of herbicide tolerance, it’s a relatively simple trait,” he said. “But weed control is not a big issue in wheat in most areas. Globally, there are many weed management solutions for wheat. But unlike herbicide tolerance, when it comes to yield increase or nitrogen use efficiency, these are fundamental characteristics that impact the plant itself. If you change the way a plant gets nutrients, this potentially changes the entire physiology of the plant, which may or may not be beneficial. At the end of the day, you want to improve certain aspects of the plant without changing others. It’s really complicated.
“Wheat is a very complex plant. We don’t know the wheat genome well yet. It’s five times larger than the genome of man. It is the queen of the crops because it is so important, but also so challenging from a technical point of view. We have achieved some milestones and the results we have obtained make us confident we will come up with real answers in the area of yield increase, quality and yield stability as well as nutrient use efficiency.“
Against the long-term objective of expanding its presence in wheat, Bayer has worked methodically and carefully to establish promising alliances over the past two years, Weidler said.
“In the United States we have collaborations with South Dakota State University, the Texas A&M University system and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln,” he said. “We also have partnerships in South America and Europe with Evogene in Israel and CSIRO in Australia.”
Much of the university work is non-biotech, Weidler said, with much of the biotech work done in-house. Lincoln, Nebraska is where the Bayer U.S. wheat program is centered, which may seem an unusual choice given that Nebraska is not one of the nation’s top wheat states.
Weidler said the choice of Lincoln is emblematic of how Bayer chooses alliances.
“The wheat program at the university, run by Stephen Baenziger, the professor of agronomy and horticulture, is really outstanding,” Weidler said. “We select our partners very carefully.”
Weidler said Nebraska boasts more agro-ecological zones from west to east in the state than exist 1,200 miles to the east.
“Nebraska offers fertile ground for our wheat breeders to discover and develop answers that could apply in wheat growing regions all over the world,” he said.