Challenges facing the U.S. wheat industry, including declining wheat acres, joined wheat research collaboration as key topics of discussion at the Wheat Quality Council’s annual meeting, forum and technical review held Feb. 16-18 at the Kansas City International Embassy Suites Hotel. The conference drew a record turnout of more than 135 participants.
Dana Peterson, newly installed chief executive officer of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), focused her comments during the Feb. 17 forum on the challenges facing the wheat industry and what may be done to once again position wheat as an attractive crop for producers to choose to grow.
"We need to produce more food with less water and fewer acres, because our society today wants us to be sustainable," Peterson said. For wheat, the task is even more difficult given the productivity of corn and soybeans, which has far outreached what the U.S. has in wheat, she said.
"It’s a tough decision for farmers to make," she said of the decision to choose between planting corn, soybeans or wheat. "If they have the climate — the natural resources available to them to choose corn or soybeans — then the profitability equation makes that an easy choice for them."
MORE TOOLS IN THE TOOLBOX
One step NAWG is taking to help wheat farmers is "putting more tools in the farmer’s toolbox," Peterson said. If the industry is to achieve NAWG’s lofty goal of a 20% increase in wheat yield nationwide by 2018, several action steps must be taken, including investing in the seed and genetic improvement.
"We know that this means money, but we have to change the investment path in wheat research," she said.
In terms of investing in seed, Peterson said industry must make clear there are repercussions in doing things the wrong way before farmers accept doing things the right way. In this regard, she said industry is making some headway in educating farmers.
In genetic improvement, Peterson said attention must be given to protecting public institutions.
"We need to make sure grower dollars invested in public breeding programs are protected and being increased," she said. "We are seeing more private investment in wheat breeding. The collaboration between the public and private institutions that we’ll likely see in the future should result in some great genetic improvement."
The biotech traits of interest that the NAWG would like to see research in include drought tolerance, improved yield, nitrogen efficiency, disease tolerance (fusarium), cold/freeze tolerance and flavor and color improvements.
Peterson said a key going forward will be looking at biotech from the farmer’s perspective as well.
"We have to have the conversation with our farmers to make sure they are ready for the point where we will have a discount for genetically modified materials even though they will have, hopefully, more profitability with that product," she said.
COLLABORATION WILL BE KEY
Wheat research collaboration was the focal point of a presentation from Darrell Hanavan, executive director of the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee.
Much of Hanavan’s discussion revolved around the announcement in early February that the industry has adopted a policy that advocates cooperation between land-grant universities and private companies, in order to develop improved wheat varieties.
The policy, called "Principles of Collaboration in Wheat Breeding and Biotechnology," gives state wheat commissions, wheat breeders and land-grant universities with public wheat breeding programs guidelines to follow when developing collaborations and agreements with private industry.
Hanavan said public breeding programs need to have access to private novel traits or face the possibility of either dying or becoming simply a germplasm developer.
He also said public wheat breeding programs are important to the success of research and market development, which is the mission of state wheat commissions, adding that as a state commission "we want to be at the table when a public/private collaboration is developed, and we also want recognition of our long-term commitment to the collaboration."
"Our ultimate goal is to support a public/private research collaboration that will preserve and strengthen public wheat breeding programs," he remarked.
With the collaboration policy in place, Hanavan said the next steps include a Uniform Wheat Workers Code of Ethics material transfer agreement that is under development.
Also, wheat commissions, wheat breeders and universities will engage with private third parties regarding the principles of collaboration in wheat breeding and technology. Assuming the discussions will be successful, the public/private wheat research collaborations will be initiated, he said.
"In phase 1, over the next five to seven years, we’ll focus on initiation of advanced breeding and continued biotech trait development," he explained. "In phase 2, during years seven to 12, we’ll focus on accelerated marker assisted breeding, biotech trait development and commercialization. Then public/private branded varieties with both biotech and non-biotech traits will then be marketed to wheat producers."
He concluded his remarks by saying state wheat commissions, wheat breeders and universities need to "hang together" to preserve and strengthen public wheat breeding programs so industry can deliver on the promise of biotechnology.
Eric Schroeder is the managing editor of World Grain’s sister publication Milling & Baking News. To contact him send an e-mail to