Food Folly in Washington

  • Published on February 7th, 2011

As Congressional Republicans and others search for budget cuts (without addressing any of the really big ticket items), one of the programs they are targeting is the small national support for wheat breeding.  Representatives of the wheat industry are mobilizing to try to let the politicians know why that is a really bad idea!

Even though wheat is one of our largest crops (55 million acres), it is at a disadvantage relative to crops like corn or soybeans or cotton.  There is a small private seed industry developing new lines of wheat, but most wheat breeding is still being done in public institutions based on national or state funding.

Wheat is mostly a “saved seed” crop which means that growers just keep some of last year’s harvest to plant the next year.  They only buy new, “Certified” seed every few years when their own seed becomes genetically mixed because of cross pollination with other fields (something that is not at all new in farming, by the way).  This means that the Certified seed sales only create a modest flow of money back to the private and public breeders.  Governmental support is key.

Wheat breeding is also very difficult.  There are many different kinds of wheat for different purposes (soft noodles, pasta, breads, pizza doughs, crackers, cookies…) and each kind has very specific quality attributes that have to be retained at the same time that disease resistance or stress tolerance are being pursued.  It is a long, slow process.

If anything, wheat breeding needs more support – not less.  Many of the public researchers are playing key roles in helping the global wheat breeding community take on the challenge of the potent new pathogen, Stem Rust strain UG99 which is threatening wheat production in many key countries.  Rising wheat prices are one factor driving unrest in wheat import dependent North Africa and Middle East.  Europe and Japan import a great deal of North American wheat and they can certainly out-bid the poorer nations. Climate change is only making this situation worse.

There probably has never been a worse time to cut wheat research.  Some of the major agricultural companies are putting new investment into wheat (and that is a good thing), but to be successful, those efforts need to dovetail with the public programs.

Lets hope that politicians listen to reason in this case.

(Wheat Image from Kevin Lallier)

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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)