New breeding technologies needed to meet skyrocketing demand for wheat, scientists warn

By Nkechi Isaac

August 13, 2019

New technologies and policies are needed to meet the skyrocketing demand for wheat, which is expected to increase 50 to 60 percent by 2050.

That was the key takeaway from the recent International Wheat Congress (IWC) in Saskatoon, Canada, which attracted over 900 delegates from 50 different countries, including researchers from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), theInternational Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP), Cornell University’s Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat project (DGGW) and the University of Saskatchewan, among others.

Some 2.5 billion consumers in 89 countries already depend on wheat as a staple food, and demand is expected to rise significantly as the world’s population tops 9 billion or more and 6.3 billion city dwellers buy convenience food. With approximately 15 percent of the planet’s arable land planted with wheat, this ancient grain is the world’s most widely grown staple food crop and is thus critical to global food security. However, wheat faces threats from climate change, variable weather, disease, predators and many other challenges.

“The fact is that between now and 2030, we have 10 growing cycles left to grow enough food to feed 1 billion more people and between 2030 and 2050 we will have only 20 cycles left to grow enough food for another billion more people,” said Dr. Joyce Irene Boye, director-general of agriculture and agri-food for Canada’s Science and Technology Branch – Prairie Region.

“The time to work together to ensure we have the supply of food for the globe is now,” she added, urging convention delegates to figure out how to produce enough wheat so the growing population of the world has enough to eat.

Modern wheat breeding practices aimed at high-input farming systems have the potential to promote genetic gains and yield stability across a wide range of environments and management conditions, benefitting not only large-scale and high input farmers, but also resource-poor, smallholder farmers who do not use large amounts of fertilizer, fungicide and other inputs, scientists noted.

Advanced plant breeding research can more quickly provide farmers with wheat varieties improved for yield, disease resistance, and heat and drought tolerance, as well as better nutritional and processing quality.

What Africa can learn from Canada

Canada, one of the world’s largest producers of wheat, is a model for successfully employing research and innovation in agriculture. But food insecurity remains a major challenge in developing nations, especially in Africa, despite major social and economic advances. Wheat-based foods are the major staple in Africa. The population rise has further driven a rapid rise in demand for wheat, but production falls short and consuming countries draw on foreign reserves to import grain annually.

Bekele Abeyo, senior scientist at CIMMYT, told the Alliance for Science that although one crop is not the solution for every country, there is great potential for wheat growing regions in Africa to sustainably improve or scale up their production by embracing research and innovative technological solutions that can improve wheat.

“What Africa can learn from Canada and other wheat producing nations like the USA is how to use existing technologies so we can produce it locally and we can invest our resources to develop research to produce more technology so we can use in Africa to make it self-sufficient,” he said.

The wheat breeder and plant pathologist urged wheat-growing countries in Africa to invest in research and development to achieve self-sufficiency.

“The best thing for Africa is to know the resources they have and to invest in research to develop technologies that can change their livelihoods by boosting production and productivity of crops they grow,” Abeyo said. “This directly means that as I am spending a lot of hard currency to import, if they invest a small amount on research and use a small package of technology, they can boost production and become self-sufficient.”

The need for enabling policies

Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram, 2014 World Food Prize winner, highlighted the importance of governments enacting enabling laws that allow for the deployment of innovative technologies that can help improve production and make Africa food secured.

The agriculturist explained that researchers cannot use novel approaches, such as gene editing, to improve the genetic gains and breeding efficiency if there are no enabling laws backing such technologies. “The policy must be revised in such a way that it is supported locally,” he said. “It must be done properly.”

Rajaram maintained that Africa has vast tracks of land, but still needs proper policies in order to use technology that can benefit researchers, farmers and the society at large.  Africa is completely ready to utilize emerging technologies to feed its growing population, without which it will not be able to produce enough food for the people, he noted.