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By Shelbi Knisley, USW Director of Trade Policy

On May 18, 2020, USDA and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Agency (APHIS) published revised rules intended to modernize its regulatory system on genetically engineered organisms and other breeding technologies through a science-based system.

USDA said this new rule will help give U.S. farmers access to these critical tools “to help increase agricultural productivity and sustainability, improve the nutritional value and quality of crops, combat pests and diseases, and enhance food safety. This new rule signals to the world that the United States is focused on risk assessments based on science to give proper oversight to these new technologies.

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspections Service has introduced a new regulatory system for evaluating new plant traits derived from transgenic and gene editing technologies. The SECURE Rule was published in The Federal Register May 18.

In particular, the rule seeks to address products that are developed through gene editing, which is of great interest to U.S. wheat producers. Gene edited products may be exempt from  strict regulation so long as no “plant pest” is present, and the products could be produced through traditional breeding methods. While many in the industry are working to determine exactly how much of these exemptions will apply to wheat breeding, the  approach is similar to that taken by other countries such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Israel and Paraguay.

While of smaller interest to U.S. wheat customers, as there have been no genetically modified (GM) traits commercialized in wheat in the United States, the rule also adjusts the existing regulatory structure for GM plants. Those adjustments will make it easier for companies to bring to market GM plants with the same plant and trait combinations that USDA has previously reviewed.

Through its joint Wheat Breeding Innovation Committee (WBIC) with the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) regularly consults with plant breeding companies and members of the grain handling industry. That dialog focuses on ensuring that regulation of new breeding technologies strikes an appropriate balance between preserving access to technology for U.S. farmers and avoiding market disruptions. That committee has established core policy positions regarding regulation of plants produced through gene editing, found here.

USW supports a science-based approach to regulating new technologies. Although there is no transgenic wheat in commercial production, U.S. wheat growers are excited about the potential for many of these new plant breeding innovations to feed a growing world population. This policy positions the U.S. to help encourage other trading partners to use science-based approaches when considering their own regulations on gene editing.

USW and NAWG will continue to work hand in hand with customers, seed developers and technology providers to ensure that domestic and overseas industry participants are informed when new technologies are brought to market. For more information, the USDA Rule can be found here and USDA’s Question and Answers can be found here.

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By Michael Anderson, USW Assistant Director, West Coast Office

Professional millers and bakers know that the appearance and taste of every product depends on the specific characteristics imparted by its flour ingredient. And those characteristics are deeply rooted in the ancient craft of plant breeding.

[Plant breeding is an ancient craft.] As far back as 10,000 years, farmers looked for traits that helped them grow more and better food. Egypt became the breadbasket of ancient Rome as its farmers adopted a type of wheat from the “fertile crescent” in modern Iraq to plant along the Nile River. Over time, the Egyptians found ways to grow a grain that was sturdy enough to transport long distances and stand up against pests. The Egyptian wheat traded with the Romans may not be what we are used to today, but the process for how it was grown to meet the needs of the consumer is by no means ancient history.

Today, the Wheat Genetics Resource Center at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center houses more than 30,000 wheat varieties from around the world that are descendants of ancient varieties. Kansas Wheat Vice President of Research and Operations Aaron Harries likened the collection to a “treasure hunt,” offering the opportunity to find the next innovation derived in part from each specimen. Researchers and breeders here, and at other programs across the United States, play an important role in the relationship U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) builds with its customers. By listening to both farmer and customer feedback, they work on developing high-yielding, disease resistant wheat seed with excellent milling, baking and processing qualities.

Wheat Genetics Resource Center at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center in Manhattan, Kan. Photo courtesy of the Kansas Wheat Commission.

Dr. Senay Simsek is a cereal chemist and professor at North Dakota State University and says that the personal connections that she has made on fifteen trips with USW to four different continents is crucial to her work. As an expert on hard red spring (HRS) wheat, Simsek says that when she prepares to meet overseas customers, she familiarizes herself with the types of wheat flour products they make, what the other ingredients are and what countries they buy wheat from. Being familiar with a market is important to understanding the unique needs of the customer. “Sophisticated” was the word she uses to describe customer needs and knowledge, emphasizing how important the technical process of using the right wheat for a specific product can be.

Dr. Senay Simsek joins USW staff to meet with U.S. wheat customers in Indonesia in 2019.

Dr. Senay Simsek joins USW staff to meet with U.S. wheat customers in Malaysia in 2019.

Each year, USW hosts several trade delegations that are traveling to the United States to learn firsthand about the U.S. wheat supply chain system. The delegations visit research institutes like the USDA Western Wheat Quality Lab at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. Its mission in part is to “conduct cooperative investigations with breeders to evaluate the milling and baking quality characteristics of wheat selections,” and to “conduct basic research into the biochemical and genetic basis of wheat quality in order to better understand the fundamental nature of end-use functionality.” The director of the lab, Dr. Craig Morris, welcomes many of the USW delegations to his lab each year and emphasizes the unique partnership that the lab, as part of the USDA Agricultural Research Service, has within the industry, among other researchers and with state wheat commissions.

A USW Japanese trade delegation visits the USDA Western Wheat Quality Lab.

In September 2019, I had the opportunity to visit Washington State University with a trade delegation from Southeast Asia. We met with Dr. Michael Pumphrey, a spring wheat breeder, who walked us through the steps of the wheat breeding process. We watched as he cross-pollinated single wheat plants, a process that requires careful, precise techniques.

In his 27 years with USW, Steve Wirsching, Vice President and West Coast Office Director, based in Portland, Ore., has hosted many trade delegations and has also led many Wheat Quality Improvement Teams of wheat breeders to visit customers overseas. When asked why USW continues to put an emphasis on facilitating the relationships between customers and wheat researchers and breeders, he said, “It is important to listen to our customers and seek feedback on the quality characteristics they need. It is part of the U.S. Wheat Associates mission, to enhance wheat’s value for our customers.”

2017 Wheat Quality Improvement team in Thailand. Read more about this activity.

2018 Wheat Quality Improvement Team in Latin America. Read more about this activity.

According to www.innovature.com, the innovation and evolving breeding methods in agriculture and food, and a deep understanding of DNA, today helps scientists like Dr. Simsek and Dr. Pumphrey make even more precise genetic changes to wheat and other plants. Their work is needed more than ever to meet some of society’s most urgent and pressing challenges including climate change, sustainability, hunger and improved health and wellness.


Read other blog posts in this series:
Farmers and State Wheat Commissions
Grain Handlers
Exporters, Inspectors and USW Overseas Offices

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Originally published Oct. 30, 2019, in “World Grain” by Susan Reidy. Editor’s Note: U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) supports advanced breeding methods such as the work described here from Australia as beneficial to farmers and international wheat buyers. Photo above: Arun Yadav from the Research School of Biology and ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at Australian National University (ANU). Photo by Lannon Harley, ANU.

Australian researchers have developed a new method to identify drought-resilient wheat quickly, cheaply and accurately.

Work by the scientists from The Australian National University (ANU), ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, and CSIRO Agriculture and Food could help breeders develop more drought-resilient crops that can produce more food and more profit with less water.

“Our work may be instrumental for farmers to maximize food production in the face of increasingly severe drought,” said Arun Yadav from the Research School of Biology and ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at ANU.

Yadav and the other lead researcher Adam Carroll said selecting wheat that can grow better during short- to medium-term drought is vital to help fight food insecurity around the world.

“Hardy crop plants that can maintain high yields under drought will help farmers produce more food reliably and maintain domestic and export markets for Australia,” Yadav said. “Drought is a major agricultural challenge in Australia, affecting food production, farmers’ livelihoods and costing the government billions of dollars in relief efforts.”

The simple test measured the relative abundance of four amino acids in wheat plants to predict their ability to maintain yield under drought much more accurately than current methods, Carroll said.

“This test can be done precisely in greenhouses all year round, at a fraction of the cost of traditional field-based methods,” he said. “Plus, it gives more accurate predictions.”

Professor Barry Pogson, a 2019 Eureka Prize winner and deputy director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at ANU, was also a member of the research team.

“If breeders are provided with 1,000 wheat varieties to choose from, they can select the drought resilient lines through a simple assessment of the four amino acids we’ve identified,” Pogson said. “The challenge is for us to show this technique does scale beyond the varieties we have tested to date.”

Greg Rebetzke and Gonzalo Estavillo from CSIRO Agriculture and Food conducted grain-yield evaluations under extensive field trials across the Australian wheat belt, which enabled the team to build a statistical model of the drought-tolerance predictor.

The study was funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation, the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Translational Photosynthesis.

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Botany.

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By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Assistant Director of Policy

A recent decision by Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency is a great step forward for innovative breeding methods that can help farmers address some of the world’s most urgent challenges.

The agency announced that Japan’s government will not require special labeling for products derived from plant breeding innovation, such as gene editing, that do not contain foreign DNA. Japan has a history of skepticism toward new agricultural technology. For example, it requires products that include transgenic traits be labeled as such. The Consumer Affairs Agency’s decision is important because it helps add clarity to how gene editing may be regulated and supports advanced technology development.

That is good news for agriculture in general, even more so for wheat production specifically. Unlike other major row crops in the U.S., there are no wheat varieties with commercialized GM traits. That means farmers do not have access to the seed technology that has helped others. We see this disadvantage in declining acres and in a slower pace of yield increases compared to soybeans, corn and other crops U.S. farmers can grow. Gene editing provides a safe and efficient way to make targeted improvements in new wheat varieties that respond to environmental stressors, combat plant disease, and benefit millers and consumers alike. However, these benefits are only possible when regulations are based in science rather than rooted in fear.

With changing climates, severe weather events, and perennial concerns like drought, disease, and pests, it is imperative that the world’s farmers have access to the best tools available. And this includes their seed. With those tools, we can ensure that U.S. farmers are providing the highest possible quality wheat consistently and reliably for years to come.

For more information about a growing understanding of DNA and advanced breeding methods in agriculture, and to learn how innovations such as gene editing can benefit our planet, our health and our food, visit www.innovature.com.

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The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) reports that an international team of scientists has identified significant new chromosomal regions for wheat yield and disease resistance and created a freely-available collection of genetic information and markers for more than 40,000 wheat lines.

Reported recently in Nature Genetics, CIMMYT says the results will speed up global efforts to breed more productive and climate-resilient varieties of bread wheat, a critical crop for world food security that is under threat from rising temperatures, rapidly-evolving fungal pathogens, and more frequent droughts, according to Philomin Juliana, wheat scientist at CIMMYT and first author of the new study.

“This work directly connects the wheat genome reference map [published in 2018] with wheat lines and extensive field data from CIMMYT’s global wheat breeding network,” said Juliana. “That network in turn links to over 200 breeding programs and research centers worldwide and contributes to yield and other key traits in varieties sown on nearly half the world’s wheat lands.”

CIMMYT noted that the study found genomic selection could be particularly effective in breeding for wheat end-use quality and for resistance to stem rust disease, whose causal pathogen has been evolving and spreading in the form of highly-virulent new races.

Bread wheat improvement using genomic tools will be critical to accelerate genetic gains in the crop’s yield, disease resistance, and climate resilience. (Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT)

“Farmers and societies today face new challenges to feed rising and rapidly-urbanizing populations, and wheat epitomizes the issues,” said Ravi Singh, CIMMYT wheat breeder and corresponding author of the study. “Higher temperatures are holding back yields in major wheat-growing areas, extreme weather events are common, crop diseases are spreading and becoming more virulent, and soil and water are being depleted.”

Juliana said the study results help pave the way to apply genomic selection, an approach that has transformed dairy cow husbandry, for more efficient wheat breeding.

“Molecular markers are getting cheaper to use; meanwhile, it is very costly to do field testing and selection involving many thousands of wheat plants over successive generations,” Juliana said. “Genome-wide marker-based selection can help breeders to precisely identify good lines in early breeding generations and to test plantlets in greenhouses, thereby complementing and streamlining field testing.”

The new study also documents the effectiveness of the global public breeding efforts by CIMMYT and partners, showing that improved wheat varieties from this work have accumulated multiple gene variants that favor higher yields, according to Hans-Joachim Braun, director of CIMMYT’s global wheat program.

“This international collaboration, which is the world’s largest publicly-funded wheat breeding program, benefits farmers worldwide and offers high-quality wheat lines that are released directly to farmers in countries, such as Afghanistan, that are unable to run a full-fledged wheat breeding program,” Braun explained.

The study results are expected to support future gene discovery, molecular breeding, and gene editing in wheat, Braun said.

USAID’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics funded the study. Contributing to the research are teams engaged in wheat improvement at CIMMYT, and the lab of Jesse Poland, Associate Professor at Kansas State University and Director of the USAID Applied Wheat Genomics Innovation Lab.

Photo above: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Crop Bioprotection Research.

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Wheat is a staple of diets across the world. In fact, it is the source of about 20 percent of the calories consumed worldwide. Researchers at Kansas State University are using innovative methods like gene editing to breed wheat with added benefits, including lower gluten options that could one day allow people with gluten sensitivities to enjoy bread and other wheat-based foods.

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) is pleased to share more information about plant breeding innovations in wheat in “Part 3 of the Plant Breeding Innovation” video series from the American Seed Trade Association and CropLife International. Click here to watch this informative presentation: https://bit.ly/2lB7zl3.

Produced by the American Seed Trade Association and CropLife International, “Breeding for Better Wheat” is next in a series on plant breeding innovations. To watch the video, visit https://bit.ly/2lB7zl3.

While the emphasis here is on innovative research associated with Kansas State University, state wheat commissions that are members of USW work closely with the Land Grant universities in their states to conduct similar public plant breeding programs. Private seed producers are also doing excellent work focused on improving both yield and functional characteristics of wheat.

USW is concerned that wheat production and harvested areas are on a long-term, downward trend around the world. Net returns per acre to farmers often favor other crops, and the differential is widening. An eventual supply and demand situation where smaller supplies of wheat are produced only in areas where more profitable alternatives do not exist will translate into supply challenges for the global food industry.

USW believes that these new technologies as well as on-going, conventional breeding methods benefit farmers, customers, and consumers, and will make positive impacts on the environment and the long-term health of U.S. agricultural land. To make this possible, USW urges the adoption of a nationally and internationally accepted definition of plant breeding innovation that clearly differentiates these methods from traditional biotechnology. The organization also advocates for international harmonization of scientific standards and trade rules.

For more information on USW’s positions on Innovation and Sustainability, visit the USW website at https://www.uswheat.org/policy/innovation-and-sustainability/.

The Genetic Literacy Project recently published this article on the role of plant breeding innovation in global wheat production: https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2019/08/29/crispr-and-other-new-breeding-techniques-could-be-key-to-unlocking-potential-of-global-wheat-production/.

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By Philip Brasher, Executive Editor, Agri-Pulse

Copyright © 2019, Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc., Excerpted with Permission

 

Crop developers say USDA’s effort to streamline its regulation of biotech crops will still slow the commercialization of many gene-edited products, but groups representing grain traders, food processors and restaurant chains are slamming the department’s proposal, claiming it could lead to trade disruptions and undermine consumer confidence.

 

Under the proposed rule issued in June, bioengineered plants would be exempted from regulation by USDA if the modifications could be produced through traditional breeding techniques, making them unlikely to pose a greater plant pest risk than conventionally bred crops.

 

Crop developers would have three options under the proposed rule: They would be allowed to decide on their own whether their modifications are exempt from regulation; Companies could seek confirmation letters from USDA of the exempt status; Or they could ask USDA to determine whether the trait is regulated or not.

 

The National Grain and Feed Association, Corn Refiners Association, National Oilseed Processors Association, North American Export Grain Association and North American Millers Association said in a joint statement to USDA that the proposal is “fundamentally flawed and is inconsistent with the agency’s obligation to protect the economic value of U.S. agricultural and food exports.”

 

Other food industry groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, National Restaurant Association and American Bakers Association, joined the grain industry on a shorter statement that said the proposal also risked undermining consumer confidence.

 

“If USDA is unable to inform consumers on what is available in the market, it is likely that consumer confidence in USDA will wane. Additionally, we believe the proposed regulatory framework opens the door for significant criticism of APHIS and genetic engineering technologies,” the statement said.

 

The groups called on USDA to slow implementation of the changes to its regulatory system until the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency issue rules or guidance on how they plan to oversee gene-edited crops.

 

Tuesday was the deadline for industry organizations, advocacy groups and the public to file comments on a proposed rule issued in June to rewrite USDA’s Part 340 regulatory process for genetically engineered plants.

 

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) and American Seed Trade Association urged USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to expand the proposed regulatory exemptions, which are based on the concept that modifications that could be achieved through “traditional breeding techniques” should not require USDA approval. The four exemptions include modifications achieved solely through the deletion of genetic material or through single base pair substitutions.

 

The American Seed Trade Association says “significant applications of genome editing” could fail to qualify for the proposed exemptions. The group said the exemptions should cover a range of genetic changes that have been traditionally made through mutations, sometimes with chemicals or radiation.

 

More than 3,200 crop varieties, from heat-tolerant cotton to Ruby Red grapefruit, have been bred since the 1950s through induced mutations, the group said.

 

Plants modified through mutations induced by chemical means or radiation can be used in organic production.

 

BIO said, “Techniques commonly used by plant breeders today are capable of creating a much broader array genetic modifications than the limited exemptions proposed.”

 

Nina Fedoroff, a molecular biologist who served as the State Department’s science and technology adviser during the George W. Bush administration, agreed that the exemptions were too limited.

 

“The kinds of modification that can be made through traditional breeding, which now defined to include chemical and radiation mutagenesis, cover a much larger array of genetic changes than is included in the detailed list of exemptions listed in the proposed rule,” wrote Fedoroff, who is a science adviser in the Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz law firm.

 

But the groups representing grain traders and processors argued that USDA hasn’t provided scientific justification for the exemptions in the proposed rule and that the self-determination approach “risks undermining consumer acceptance and international regulatory recognition of APHIS’s regulatory oversight.”

 

The biotech industry acknowledged that USDA should require some form of mandatory notification. BIO, which represents a wide range of biotech companies, said breeders should be required to file a notification, which would include details of why it is exempt from regulation, at least 90 days before putting the product on the market. The information would later be posted on an agency website. The notification requirement would apply to a product that a developer self-determines to be exempt, not just to those products for which the developer seeks formal confirmation from USDA that it is exempt.

 

“BIO looks forward to working with the Agency on implementing guidance that achieves transparency without limiting innovation in either commodity or specialty crops,” the group said in its 43-page filing with APHIS.

 

ASTA also supports mandatory notification, although the industry is still debating what the requirements should be, said ASTA President Andy LaVigne.

 

The National Corn Growers Association cautioned the agency to consider how a mandatory notification system “might be perceived in international markets” and whether and how the notification process would “hinder global acceptance” of biotech products.

 

The National Association of Wheat Growers, which also is concerned about protecting its export markets, called on the federal government to “actively engage with our trading partners as soon as possible to work toward consistent, science-based policies across countries to avoid trade disruptions.

 

“All foreign customers expect the continued oversight by USDA to ensure consistent food safety, which is fundamental to their confidence in purchases of U.S. wheat,” the group said in its comments, noting that half the wheat American farmers grow is sold for export.

 

The vast majority of the more than 5,400 comments that have been posted online so far have been critical of the administration for seeking to streamline biotech regulations.

 

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group that is generally supportive of agricultural biotechnology, also thinks USDA is going too far in deregulating the products.

 

CSPI specifically opposes allowing companies to self-determine whether their products are subject to regulation and says the proposed exemptions are too expansive, not too narrow, as BIO, ASTA and Fedoroff argue.

 

The proposed rule would eliminate USDA oversight of many ‘traditional’ plants that are genetically engineered, “which could result in harm to human health, the environment, and/or U.S. agricultural interests. We are also concerned that many of the proposed exemptions from oversight are not supported by the necessary scientific data and analysis that would ensure they will not result in adverse impacts,” CSPI said in its comments.

 

The group goes on, “U.S. consumers and trading partners will not accept unregulated GE products unless the basis for exempting oversight is based on scientific evidence.”

 

An advocacy group that has long fought USDA in court over biotech regulation, the Center for Food Safety, claims in its comments that the exemptions would “drastically shrink the scope of regulation to a small subset” of genetically engineered organisms.

 

“This exemption scheme is arbitrary and capricious, and contrary to sound science, because as APHIS itself concedes, it is impossible to determine whether a specific GE modification on a specific plant could in fact have been effected by means of traditional breeding techniques,” CFS says.

The organization contends the exemption criteria are so explicit that crop breeders won’t bother to consult with APHIS on whether their products are regulated.

A USDA official said recently that the department should be on track to finalize the regulatory changes in mid-2020.

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Originally published by K-State Research and Extension;

Reprinted with permission from the Kansas Wheat Commission

A team of Kansas State University wheat scientists are tapping into 10,000 years of evolution in the plant’s genetic code as part of their continued efforts to understand how historic processes that shaped modern wheat can help to improve the varieties grown by today’s farmers.

The exhaustive study, which is published in Nature Genetics, involved sequencing the genomes of nearly 1,000 wheat lines collected from different parts of the world with different environments. The work was led by researchers from K-State and Agriculture Victoria of Australia, in collaboration with the University of Saskatchewan (Canada) and the University of Minnesota.

“We compared the genomes (in the 1,000 wheat lines) against each other, and looked for nucleotide base changes, or mutations, that distinguish one wheat accession from another,” said Eduard Akhunov, a K-State wheat geneticist.

He noted that the researchers found more than 7 million differences in the genetic code of the 1,000 lines.

“These differences can affect the function of genes that control various traits in wheat that helped it adapt to new growth conditions, such as withstanding drought and heat stresses; fighting off diseases; and yielding nutritious grain,” Akhunov said.

The changes that occurred in the genetic code can tell researchers a history of each wheat accession.

“When humans started spreading wheat from the site of its origin to other places, they brought it into contact with wild wheat, and wild ancestors accidentally began to inter-breed with bread wheat,” Akhunov said. “What happened then was that bread wheat  inherited the genetic diversity that was present in the wild emmer wheat.”

That process of one species sharing genes with another species is called gene flow, and it is key for explaining the genetic diversity of today’s wheat varieties, according to K-State wheat breeder Allan Fritz.

“Understanding gene flow between wild emmer and common wheat is more than just academically interesting,” Fritz said. “The importance of historical introgression suggests that a more strategic use of wild emmer should have value for future wheat improvement.”

Fritz noted that K-State scientists have been using wild emmer in developing germplasm for new wheat varieties in projects funded by the Kansas Wheat Commission and the university’s Wheat Genetics Resource Center.

The work by Akhunov and his research team allows breeders to “evaluate the diversity in wild emmer and be intentional and strategic” in how they employ desired traits in new wheat varieties, according to Fritz.

“As we move forward, we can apply what has been learned here to also focus future efforts on traits related to health and nutrition that wouldn’t have been direct targets of historical selection,” he said.

Akhunov adds: “For the first time, we have described how wild emmer’s genetic diversity contributed to the development of bread wheat. And what it’s done since humans domesticated wheat is it’s helped to develop a better crop.”

K-State’s study was funded by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s competitive grants program, administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and part of the International Wheat Yield Partnership, which Akhunov said aims at increasing the genetic yield potential of wheat using innovative approaches.

Akhunov also said that Corteva Agriscience and the agriculture division of Dow/DuPont provided financial support through its collaboration with Agriculture Victoria Service. Their support, he said, allowed the researchers access to needed technologies and to develop the set of data indicating the genetic differences in wheat varieties, also called an SNP dataset.

K-State received additional funding from the Kansas Wheat Commission and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Header Photo Caption: Kansas State University wheat geneticist and pathologist Eduard Akhunov works in the university’s greenhouse. Photo Credit: K-State Research & Extension

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In April, the results of a study by a consortium of researchers from seven countries was published in “Nature Genetics” describing the sequence of the entire genome of an Italian durum wheat variety called “Svevo.” Durum breeders suggest this is an important finding that will help speed development of new, improved varieties of the crop that provides semolina for high quality pasta products.

“We can now examine the genes, their order and structure to assemble a blueprint that provides an opportunity to understand how the genes work and communicate with one another,” said University of Saskatchewan wheat breeder Dr. Curtis Pozniak in a statement from the consortium. “With this blueprint, we can now work quickly to identify genes that are responsible for the traits we select for in our breeding programs such as yield, disease resistance, and nutritional properties.”

Calling the work ground-breaking, another spokesperson for the consortium said it “will lead to new standards for durum breeding … paving the way for production of durum wheat varieties better adapted to climate challenges, with higher yields, enhanced nutritional quality and improved sustainability.”

“This is good news for durum breeders,” said Dr. Elias Elias, Distinguished Professor, J. F. Carter Durum Wheat Breeding/Genetics, with the Plant Sciences department of North Dakota State University (NDSU). “We do know much about the positive traits we want to express. Now, with the complete genome map, we will be able to identify the specific gene or markers for the genes responsible for the traits in a much more precise way.”

For example, the team that decoded the genome said they had discovered the gene that causes the durum plant to take up cadmium, an undesirable trait. Dr. Elias said NDSU has already introduced durum varieties with low cadmium uptake. With the specific gene identified, breeders can more quickly select for varieties without the undesirable trait for conventional breeding methods or, perhaps in the future, precisely alter an undesirable function through gene editing to bring improved varieties to farmers more quickly.

USDA, which also administers export market development programs through its Foreign Agricultural Service, contributed some funding for the genome study. More information is available online at https://bit.ly/2LqBCsk.

Scientists have recently mapped the complex, polyploid genome of hard amber durum, grown in the northern U.S. Plains and Desert Durum® grown in the desert Southwest, produces semolina for premium pasta products, couscous and semolina bread. This class evolved from wild emmer wheat and was established as a prominent crop up to 2,000 years ago.

 

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By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Assistant Director of Policy

Seventy-five years ago, the seeds of the Green Revolution were planted when Norman Borlaug began his work on wheat breeding in Mexico. The success of that effort, which was a partnership between the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation, led to the eventual founding of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

In 1971, CGIAR was established as an umbrella organization to create an international consortium of research centers. CIMMYT was one of the first research centers supported through the CGIAR, which today includes 15 centers around the world with a local presence in 70 countries. Each center focuses on unique challenges, but they are all driven by three broad strategic goals: to reduce poverty; to improve food and nutrition security; and to improve natural resources and ecosystem services.

For 50 years, wheat has been one of the core crops of CGIAR’s focus. CGIAR receives annual funding of about $30 million for wheat, and the economic benefits of that wheat breeding research range from $2.2 to $3.1 billion. This is a benefit-cost ratio of at least 73 to 1 — for every $1 spent in CGIAR wheat research funding, there is more than $73 in economic benefits to global wheat farmers. CIMMYT’s international wheat improvement programs generate $500 million per year in economic benefits. Globally, nearly half of the wheat varieties planted are CGIAR-related; in South, Central and West Asia and North Africa, that number rises to 70 to 80 percent of wheat varieties. When wheat supplies 20 percent of protein and calories in diets worldwide, CGIAR wheat research can have a major impact on the livelihoods of the world’s most poor people.

CGIAR Research Centers have also led to significant benefits for U.S. farmers as well. Approximately 60 percent of the wheat acreage planted in the U.S. uses CGIAR-related wheat varieties. CIMMYT wheat improvement spillovers in the United States repay the total U.S. contribution to CIMMYT’s wheat improvement research budget by a rate of up to 40 to 1. Another partner, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), has delivered innovations that protect U.S. farmers from crop losses due to destructive pests, and has also partnered with CIMMYT to develop the One Global Wheat Program under CGIAR.

One aspect of the CGIAR success story in the United States is about partnership. Public U.S. universities around the country have partnered with CGIAR on agricultural research, to the benefit of U.S. farmers and farmers worldwide. This partnership allows for knowledge transfer and idea-sharing on a global scale. USW is proud that many of our member states have universities that have partnered with CGIAR on wheat projects.

The news is not all good, however. As we anticipate world population growing to 10 billion in 2050, the demand for wheat is expected to increase by 50 percent. To meet that demand, wheat yields must increase by 1.6 percent annually. Currently they are increasing by less than 1 percent annually. There is plenty of work to do to continue Borlaug’s mission of achieving food security. CGIAR Research Centers will continue to play a critical role in that effort.

The United States’ investment in CGIAR Research Programs makes a vital contribution to agricultural improvements and fosters partnerships with U.S. public research universities, international research centers, private sector partnerships and others. Partnerships with CGIAR make it possible to do the win-win collaborative wheat research that helps meet global food needs, brings tremendous economic benefits to U.S. agriculture and leverages U.S. research dollars.

We invite our stakeholders and overseas customers to learn more about this important partnership and the benefits of CGIAR wheat research in part through a fact sheet posted here on the USW website.