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.


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


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

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.



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.


By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Assistant Director of Policy

This week, Wageningan University —one of the top agricultural universities in the world, located in the Netherlands —issued a press release about their research on using gene editing to produce “gluten safe” wheat so that individuals with Celiac disease can enjoy wheat products. It is possible to remove all gluten genes from wheat; however, this process has a negative impact on baking quality and the wheat-food product. Instead, Wageningan PhD candidate Aurélie Jouanin is researching the use of CRISPR/Cas9 technology to modify specific wheat genes to produce wheat with safe gluten that does not cause an allergic reaction.

This is only one of many exciting research projects around the world using plant breeding innovation. These new technologies allow for precise changes to plant DNA to help address thorny challenges—consumer health, environmental stressors and disease pressures, among others. And as scientists find innovative ways to address complex issues, outdated and overly burdensome regulations struggle to catch up.

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) recognizes that advanced technology is imperative to helping farmers adapt to changing and challenging growing environments. Traditional breeding often takes too long and produces results that are too random to consistently keep up with evolving diseases and pests, and it has very little hope of doing something at the same scale as the potential of Jouanin’s research.

However, new technology also needs to be paired with consumer engagement and smart trade decisions. Recognizing this, the USW and the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) adopted a joint statement on plant breeding innovation policy.

This statement distinguishes the importance of new technology in breeding for everyone along the supply chain, from farmers to international customers to consumers. It reaffirms our support of continued research; of fair, science-based regulation where necessary; and of the U.S. and foreign governments taking steps to ensure open trade flows. The statement also argues that plant breeding innovations should be clearly differentiated from traditional biotechnology in regulatory discussions, with internationally harmonized definitions and scientific standards.

Government regulations often move slowly. However, in this case, that slow movement can have serious repercussions on the agricultural industry and on consumers who could benefit from new technology. With this new policy statement, USW sends a clear message of support for science-based decision making and the opportunities that plant breeding innovation present for wheat.


The American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) have jointly developed “Innovature,” a new resource to encourage a thoughtful dialogue around innovation in food and agriculture and the tangible benefits for our planet, our health and our food.


Through its website, social media and other activities, “Innovature” aims to foster productive conversations between key thought leaders and the public and cultivate broad partnerships that can help realize the full, positive potential of evolving breeding methods like gene editing.


U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) supports finding new ways to improve wheat quality and increase production with less impact on the environment. New research in biotechnology and plant breeding innovations, and a deepening understanding of DNA, will help make this possible. Scientists can now make far more precise genetic changes to plants and animals to help address some of society’s most urgent challenges including climate change, sustainability, hunger and improving health and wellness.


USW welcomed the opportunity to have a place where wide-ranging, inclusive viewpoints about such innovations can be shared and discussed and we have collaborated on “Innovature” with the sponsoring organizations. We will continue to offer our support and recommendations moving forward.


The website features original content and news about plant and animal breeding methods and their beneficial effects. We encourage our stakeholders at home and around the world to explore and share the site and engage with “Innovature” on these social media platforms:


BIO and ASTA welcome story ideas and other submissions at To learn more about the two organizations, their missions and membership please visit and



“Innovature” is a new platform for engaging in discussion about plant and animal breeding methods and their beneficial effects on our plant, food and health. It includes the website above,, with original information and news, and an active social media agenda.


Photo Above: Copyright Oklahoma State University/Todd Johnson


By Steve Wirsching, USW Vice President and Director, West Coast Office

In Latin America, the holidays are filled with special wheat food traditions. Mexicans celebrate the visit of the Three Kings to the Christ child with Rosca de Reyes (Kings Cake Wreath), a ring-shaped sweet bread. In Peru, wheat consumption increases with Panettone bread sales. This holiday sweet bread can be traced back to the Italian bakers that made Peru their home many generations ago.

Special holiday breads are thriving despite a baking industry transitioning from artisan bakery shops to highly automated commercial operations. Such modern bakeries employ equipment that drives a need for ever more consistent, high-quality flour.

It was in this context that U.S. Wheat Associates (USW), with funding from member state wheat commissions and USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, assembled a team of leading wheat breeders to visit the top markets in Latin America. This Wheat Quality Improvement Team (WQIT) traveled to Mexico City, Mexico, Guatemala City, Guatemala, San Jose, Costa Rica and Lima, Peru, Dec. 8 to 18, 2018. Meetings with several food processing and flour milling industry representatives focused on U.S. wheat quality relative to the unique production challenges these customers face.

Wheat farmers, state wheat commissions, and public and private breeders understand that the end-use quality of U.S. wheat, as measured by end-use functionality, is more important than ever before in today’s increasingly competitive marketplace Such direct input from Latin American food processing companies to breeders is one of the ways USW is helping determine breeding targets, as well as helping develop selection criteria for new variety releases. The face-to-face interaction with breeders in this activity helps overseas buyers understand that U.S. wheat quality is no accident but is, rather, the product of investment from farmers and years of scientific work.

Customers shared several preferred characteristics from U.S. wheat including consistent quality from shipment to shipment, increased dough strength and water absorption, and lower polyphenol oxidase (PPO) to prevent color change. These messages and more will be relayed to state wheat commissions at upcoming Wheat Quality Council meetings in Portland, Ore., and Kansas City, Mo.

Market development programs like this Wheat Quality Improvement Team help ensure that Latin American sweet breeds like the Rosca de Reyes and Panettone continue to be a holiday tradition — made with high-quality wheat from the United States.

Participating Wheat Breeders 

The WQIT to Latin America in December included:

  • Guorong Zhang, Leader, Kansas State wheat breeding program and Associate Professor at Kansas State University;
  • Brett Carver, Wheat Genetics Chair in Agriculture, Oklahoma State University;
  • Mike Giroux, Co-director of the Montana State Wheat Quality Laboratory and leader of the Montana State durum breeding program;
  • Jackie Rudd, Leader of the hard winter wheat breeding program for the High Plains and Rolling Plains of Texas;
  • Arron Carter, Director of the winter wheat breeding and genetics program at Washington State University;
  • Mr. Steve Wirsching, USW Vice President and Director, West Coast Office.

The team and USW Staff in front of the Presedente Hotel in Mexico City.


On Oct. 30, 2018, an International Statement on “Agricultural Applications of Precision Biotechnology” was released at the World Trade Organization (WTO) Committee on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. That statement reiterates an international commitment to the fair, science-based treatment of evolving plant breeding methods, like gene editing, around the world. To date, Argentina, which led this effort, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Jordan, Paraguay, the United States, Uruguay, Vietnam and the Secretariat of the Economic Community of West African States have endorsed the statement.

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) recently joined 17 other national organizations representing agriculture and science communities in commending the governments that initiated and supported the statement “as a positive step toward improved international coordination. This is crucial to the ability of breeders to utilize new and innovative methods, to increasing choice for farmers and to maintaining trade in agricultural products.”

The groups believe the statement appropriately recognizes that “precision biotechnology products have the potential to play a critical role in addressing the challenges facing agricultural production…” and that “cooperative work by governments to minimize unnecessary barriers to trade related to the regulatory oversight of products of precision biotechnology, including the exploration of opportunities for regulatory and policy alignment, should be pursued where possible.”

“This is a strong showing of support by governments around the world in recognition of the necessity of continued evolution in plant breeding, and the critical role that it will play in ensuring a more sustainable and secure global food production system,” said American Seed Trade Association President & CEO Andrew LaVigne.

View the full statement and list of signing organizations here.

USW supports finding new ways to improve wheat quality and increase production with less impact on the environment. New research in biotechnology and plant breeding innovation, including gene editing, will help make this possible. To learn more, visit our website at


Kansas State University wheat geneticist and pathologist Eduard Akhunov works recently in the university’s greenhouse. K-State researchers and colleagues from two U.S. universities have identified close to 1 million markers in the genome of 2400 wheat lines, work that will lead to faster and more efficient improvements in wheat varieties.


By Haley Ahlers, Innovation Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics Project Manager. Reprinted with permission from Kansas Wheat. See the original article here.

Kansas State University scientists, in collaboration with the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC), published in the international journal Science on August 16, 2018, a detailed description of the complete genome of bread wheat, the world’s most widely-cultivated crop. This work will pave the way for the production of wheat varieties better adapted to climate challenges, with higher yields, enhanced nutritional quality and improved sustainability.

The research article-authored by more than 200 scientists from 73 research institutions in 20 countries- presents the reference genome of the bread wheat variety Chinese Spring. The DNA sequence ordered along the 21 wheat chromosomes is the highest quality genome sequence produced to date for wheat. It is the result of 13 years of collaborative international research and the generous support of the National Science Foundation, Kansas farmers and many others.

“It is a dream come true for Kansas wheat farmers, who were the first to invest in the wheat genome sequencing project and pivotal in rallying U.S. wheat farmers in support of the wheat genome sequencing project,” said Dr. Bikram Gill, distinguished professor at Kansas State University who organized the first National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture-sponsored workshop planning meeting on wheat genome sequencing in Washington, D.C., in 2003.

A key crop for food security, wheat is the staple food of more than a third of the global human population and accounts for almost 20 percent of the total calories consumed by humans worldwide, more than any other single food source. It also serves as an important source of vitamins and minerals.

Kansas farmers grow an average of 340 million bushels of wheat each year, but acres planted to wheat have dropped dramatically over the past decade, from 10 million acres to fewer than 8 million. To meet future demands of a projected world population of 9.6 billion by 2050, wheat productivity needs to increase by 1.6 percent each year. In order to preserve biodiversity, water and nutrient resources, the majority of this increase has to be achieved via crop and trait improvement on land currently cultivated, rather than committing new land to cultivation. In order for farmers to dedicate these precious resources to wheat production rather than production of other crops, wheat farming must become profitable.

With the reference genome sequence now completed, breeders have at their fingertips new tools to address global challenges. They will be able to more rapidly identify genes and regulatory elements underlying complex agronomic traits such as yield, grain quality, resistance to fungal diseases and tolerance to physical stress-and produce hardier wheat varieties.

“Completion of the sequence is a landmark event that will serve as a critical foundation for future wheat improvement,” said Dr. Allan Fritz, Kansas State University professor and wheat breeder. “It is the key to allowing efficient, real-time integration of relevant genetics, making the selection process more efficient-it’s a turbocharger for wheat breeding!”

It is expected that the availability of a high-quality reference genome sequence will boost wheat improvement over the next decades, with benefits similar to those observed with maize and rice after their reference sequences were produced.

“Kansas wheat farmers have been supporting the wheat genome sequencing efforts through the Kansas Wheat Commission’s wheat assessment since the establishment of the IWGSC in 2005, with a cumulative amount of nearly a quarter of a million dollars,” said Justin Gilpin, chief executive officer for Kansas Wheat. “The sequence of the bread wheat genome has already had a positive effect on wheat improvement, which not only affects the science behind wheat breeding, but has a long-lasting positive outcome in regard to wheat producer productivity, profitability and, ultimately, livelihoods.”

Sequencing the bread wheat genome was long considered an impossible task, due to its enormous size – five times larger than the human genome-and complexity-bread wheat has three sub-genomes and more than 85% of the genome is composed of repeated elements.

“It is exciting to be a part of this landmark achievement,” said Dr. Jesse Poland, associate professor at Kansas State University and director of the Wheat Genetics Resource Center and the USAID Innovation Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics. “This international effort, toward something that was once deemed impossible, will have tremendous impact on wheat in Kansas, and the world.”

The impact of the wheat reference sequence has already been significant in the scientific community, as exemplified by the publication on the same date of six additional publications describing and using the reference sequence resource, one appearing in the same issue of Science, one in Science Advances and four in Genome Biology. In addition, more than 100 publications crediting the reference sequence have been published since the resource was made available to the scientific community in January 2017.  “We are extensively using the new reference sequence for more informed molecular breeding” commented Poland.  “It is really having a big impact.”

In addition to the sequence of the 21 chromosomes, the Science article also presents the precise location of 107,891 genes and of more than 4 million molecular markers, as well as sequence information between the genes and markers containing the regulatory elements influencing the expression of genes.

The IWGSC achieved this result by combining the resources it generated over the last 13 years using classic physical mapping methods and the most recent DNA sequencing technologies; the sequence data were assembled and ordered along the 21 chromosomes using highly efficient algorithms, and genes were identified with dedicated software programs.

All IWGSC reference sequence resources are publicly available at the IWGSC data repository at URGI-INRA Versailles and at other international scientific databases such as GrainGenes and Ensembl Plants.

The Science article is entitled “Shifting the limits in wheat research and breeding using a fully annotated reference genome” and can be read here.

About the IWGSC

The IWGSC, with 2,400 members in 68 countries, is an international, collaborative consortium, established in 2005 by a group of wheat growers, plant scientists, and public and private breeders. The goal of the IWGSC is to make a high-quality genome sequence of bread wheat publicly available, in order to lay a foundation for basic research that will enable breeders to develop improved varieties. The IWGSC is a U.S. 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.


By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Assistant Director of Policy


This week, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on the regulatory status of plants developed through mutagenesis (which includes many modern plant breeding innovations). They determined that these technologies do fall under the jurisdiction of EU laws regarding GMOs. And with that, they landed a serious blow to the future of agricultural innovation.


Earlier this year, an advocate general of the ECJ wrote an opinion stating that gene-editing techniques that did not result in foreign DNA in the final product should not be considered GMOs under EU GM legislation. This ruling created hope that regulations on promising new technology like CRISPR-Cas9 would not be overly burdensome. Those hopes were dashed by this new ruling though.


This ruling, based solely on the process used to develop a plant and ignoring the safety and effectiveness of the plant itself, is shortsighted and irresponsible. A ruling like this will have a chilling effect on European plant breeding efforts, and by extension will have negative economic and environmental consequences for the continent. Those effects will likely trickle to other plant breeding programs around the world because if a plant cannot get into Europe easily, then all countries that export to the EU will be hesitant to adopt new technology.  Additionally, the EU is often used as a benchmark for other countries considering their own regulations on biotechnology and plant breeding, so this interpretation may be adopted more widely.


The EU, as a group of developed countries, can weather those negative effects of restrictive regulation. But this is one more stumbling block to food security that other parts of the world cannot afford. The privilege to limit food options based on non-scientific consumer fear is one that the EU and other developed countries take for granted. But these technologies can have a massive impact on production and nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia. With that in mind, rather than constraining new research, we should be supporting these efforts as much as possible. And one crucial avenue of support is providing science-based regulations that do not impede trade flows. As global economic leaders, this is not an option; it is a responsibility.


For more information, visit: