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By Dr. Senay Simsek, Bert L. D’Appolonia Cereal Science and Technology of Wheat Endowed Associate Professor, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND

With the global demand for wheat remaining quite strong, there is a continual need to develop new varieties that have resistance to the latest disease threats, as well as improved yield, agronomic and end-use qualities. The varieties available today are improved over historic varieties, yet their basic genetic structure is essentially unchanged. In the Northern U.S. Plains during the past century, there have been many improved wheat cultivars, including many public varieties developed by breeders at North Dakota State University (NDSU).

Those of us involved in wheat research, production and processing fully accept that flour from HRS and other wheat classes as well as semolina is healthy and very nutritious for the vast majority of people. However, this has not prevented opposing points of view, and serious attacks against food products that contain gluten.

Celiac disease is a real and serious autoimmune condition that has gained a lot of attention in the past few years. Reputable medical organizations have determined that celiac disease is prevalent in about 1 of every 100 people worldwide. However, the over-simplified explanation that “gluten causes celiac disease” has likely hurt the reputation of wheat and wheat foods. There is a subtle but significant difference that demonstrates gluten alone does not cause celiac disease and, as our study showed, that new wheat varieties are not responsible for increased cases of celiac.

The gluten in wheat, which is essential for the elastic texture of dough, is composed of two separate proteins: glutenin and gliadin. Glutenin and gliadin are divided into distinct compounds, which in turn are made up of specific peptides (compounds of two or more amino acids in a chain).

A genetic predisposition to celiac must exist in individuals before the presence of certain gliadin and glutenin peptides may trigger an immune response that results in damage to the lining of the small intestine. These peptides are therefore considered “immunogenic.” Previous studies have found that α-gliadin proteins in wheat have a high number of immunogenic peptides.

In many ways, simply blaming gluten for celiac has helped spark quite a bit of unwanted attention from bloggers, authors, doctors and others making claims that modern breeding practices have changed wheat protein chemistry. This has resulted in a higher concentration of immunogenic peptides in modern wheat in comparison to historical wheat varieties, and that this is a contributing factor towards increased incidence of celiac disease.

To test this hypothesis, we studied the protein chemistry of 30 HRS wheat cultivars released in North Dakota in the last century. The presence of celiac disease-initiating-peptides was determined using untargeted mass spectrometry, and the amount of these peptides was quantified using a targeted mass spectrometric approach. We collaborated with Dr. Steven Meinhardt from the NDSU Plant Pathology Department and graduate student Maneka Malalgoda worked with us as part of her master’s thesis project. This project was funded by growers through checkoff funds from the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

In the qualitative analysis, we determined the presence of 15 immunogenic peptides. We found that the presence of these peptides is not related to the release year of cultivars and that these peptides appear randomly. In our quantitative analysis, we specifically tracked two prominent immunogenic peptides, PFPQPQLPY (DQ-α-I/ glia-α9) and RPQQPYPQ (glia-α20), and total α-gliadin. The results supported our previous findings. That is, the amount of the peptides varied randomly across the years that were analyzed, and there is no correlation between release year and the number of immunogenic peptides or total α-gliadin.

Thus, overall, our results demonstrate that modern HRS wheat is not higher in terms of celiac disease immunogenicity in comparison to historical HRS varieties.

Our team plans to submit the complete study report to a peer reviewed journal in the future.

Editor’s Note: Capital Press has reported that a researcher is working with the Kansas Wheat Commission at the Heartland Plant Innovations Center in Manhattan, KS, toward a “celiac-safe” wheat. In theory, celiac-safe wheat would still contain the gluten proteins necessary for making bread, but would have none of the immunogenic peptides which trigger an immune response in people with the genetic predisposition for celiac disease, said Chris Miller, director of wheat quality research for Heartland Plant Innovations.

“I think the problem of celiac disease is so big that it won’t be solved by a single group of researchers,” Miller said. “If we can identify the underlying cause of celiac reactivity in the process, and we have the means to reduce it, we should be working towards those types of goals.”

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What is plant breeding innovation? What do plant breeders do? And what could the latest breeding techniques like gene editing mean for the future of agriculture and society? Find answers to these questions and more at seedinginnovation.org, a new educational resource developed by the American Seed Trade Association.

The plant breeding innovation website is a multimedia platform that houses “Frequently Asked Questions, a blog, plant breeder profiles, videos, one-page summaries and other resources about the evolution and future of plant breeding. Visit www.seedinginnovation.org and follow @Better_Seed on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to learn more.

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Through advancements in agriculture and the development of new crop varieties, humans have historically strived to meet the needs of a growing population and to develop a safe, reliable and sustainable food supply. How will we continue to meet this challenge, while dealing with a changing climate and threats of new pests and diseases? The American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) affirms that continued innovation is paramount to the future of agriculture and to our shared quality of life. Plant breeders including those who develop new wheat varieties will need access to available tools to responsibly meet these challenges.

The fundamental practices of plant breeders have not changed over time, ASTA notes. Plant breeders still select the best plants for their desired goal, which may be higher yields, disease resistance, improved end use characteristics or better nutrition. However, the tools and information that plant breeders use have evolved, allowing them to take advantage of the growing understanding of plant science and genetics. Today, with the capability to sequence plant genomes and the ability to link a specific gene or genes to a specific characteristic, breeders are able to more precisely make improvements in plant varieties. Breeders can also make specific changes in existing plant genes in ways similar to changes that could occur in nature.

Innovative breeding methods include a variety of tools that mimic processes that have been used in traditional breeding since the early 20th century. ASTA reports that breeders may opt to use the newer methods rather than classical breeding to reach the same endpoint more accurately and efficiently. As with more traditional breeding methods, some of the newer methods focus on using a plant’s own genes, or genes from the plant’s wild relatives, to create a desired characteristic, such as disease resistance or drought tolerance. It is a more precise way of creating genetic variation — a longtime goal of plant breeders. To read more about innovations in wheat breeding, visit https://www.heartlandinnovations.com/about-us/kansas-wheat-innovation-center.

It is important to note that seeds are comprehensively regulated by USDA. A key feature of the plant breeding process is extensive testing and evaluation starting early in the process and continuing until the final product is commercially available. These tests are based on procedures breeders have used for many decades to create new plant varieties that are safe to grow and eat.

The world’s farmers and food manufacturers understand that America’s agriculture producers face the very real challenge of providing for a growing population so future generations have access to the same diverse, nutritious and high quality food we enjoy today. ASTA believes improved breeding methods will help meet these needs more efficiently and economically through agriculture practices that preserve natural resources and biodiversity. These new breeding methods are accessible to both public and commercial plant breeders in developed and developing countries, and they can be used across all agriculturally important crops, including food, feed, fiber and fuel crops.

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By Dalton Henry, USW Director of Policy

Working with partners around the world on shared missions has been a core function of USW throughout its history. That principle applies whether those partners are wheat growers, customers or even international market competitors. An example of this collaboration was on display last week in Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, at the third annual Canadian Global Crops symposium. USW and some of its stakeholders joined more than 250 professionals from the Canadian wheat and grain value chains at the symposium to tackle the big topics facing our industry.

The conference, appropriately themed “Innovation: Opportunity and Challenge,” focused on the application of technology in agriculture and resulting effects on the entire value chain. The broad category of advanced plant breeding techniques, including technologies such as CRISPR-cas9 and TALEN, both commonly referred to as “gene editing,” garnered particular attention. Two seed companies provided detailed explanations of these processes and their applications in breeding programs. Compared to the lengthy process of cross-breeding and its random results, advanced breeding technologies are allowing more precise improvements in plant breeding, in many cases without producing transgenic plants. Grain handling companies and government regulators also provided perspective on the new technologies, including how regulators view the processes and potential challenges that may result from uncoordinated governments’ regulations. USW supports a review process that facilitates industry discussions such as these to ensure compatibility between all governments’ efforts on these new technologies.

During the symposium, the International Grain Trade Coalition (IGTC) held strategy and general sessions. The IGTC includes non-profit trade associations, councils and corporate stakeholders interested in working to support trade in grains, oilseeds and other bulk agricultural products. The organization has multiple working groups that focus on finding solutions to trade irritants and informing discussions on global trade in grains, including expanding the use of electronic documents and harmonization of phytosanitary measures. A number of U.S. and Canadian companies and grower organizations, including USW, are active IGTC members and support its work to better facilitate trade for both our producers and customers around the world.

It is through platforms such as these that both Canadian and U.S. grower organizations are able to work together for the advancement of the entire industry and better serve the needs of the customers we share around the world.

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Excerpts from the National Association of Wheat Growers Newsletter.

The United States has a long-history of advancing wheat quality to satisfy the demand of a growing world market for high quality, wholesome grains that become the ingredients of a sophisticated food industry. The National Wheat Improvement Committee (NWIC) — including public wheat breeders, farmers and industry stakeholders — serves a vital role by providing farmers with high quality seed stock so that the United States can produce superior quality wheats demanded by domestic and overseas markets. Unfortunately, wheat research funding relative to the economic viability of U.S. wheat is inadequate

“In many cases, due to the strong dollar, these quality wheats now garner a substantial premium, reflecting their intrinsic end-use functional value,” said USW Vice President and West Coast Office Director Steve Wirsching. “To maintain our competitive advantage in the area of quality, U.S. farmers need new breeding technology that will require continued investment from both public and private sector stakeholders.”

To sustain the research needed to improve U.S. wheat’s position in foreign markets, the NWIC has determined that Congress needs to provide $3.4 million more every year in research funds. As a part of its educational activities, the NWIC brought 21 wheat breeders and stakeholders to Washington, DC, March 15.

Armed with a priority list of critical research appropriation requests, NWIC members made their case with key contacts in USDA and Congress. Their requests included full funding for the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative and next-generation genotyping, which will facilitate the application of genomic information and DNA marker technologies for improvement and breeding of wheat, barley and oat varieties.“It is crucial that Congress is aware of the necessity for continued, stable investment in wheat research,” said NWIC Chairman Dr. Paul Murphy, from North Carolina University. “The next decade holds tremendous promise based on emerging technologies that were not possible even five or ten years ago. This is a wonderful time to be a wheat researcher because we are developing technology to improve efficiency, address vulnerabilities such as disease, insect and abiotic stresses, and maintaining the quality of wheat we need to help feed the world.”

The NWIC believes the benefits of increased research investment will cascade from farmers to the world’s millers, bakers, brewers and consumers.

Recently, the USDA has also made a case for agriculture research funding. As reported in Agri-Pulse © on March 16, the leaders of USDA’s research agencies told lawmakers on the House Agriculture Appropriations panel why federal investment in agricultural research is critical to protecting the national food system and supporting American producers. Read the full story from Agri-Pulse here.

 

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“As a neutral forum, FAO has been promoting debates, dialogues and exchanges of information in order to enhance our knowledge of a broad portfolio of tools and approaches to eradicate hunger, fight every form of malnutrition and achieve sustainable agriculture.” That is how Jose Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, opened the recent FAO-hosted international symposium, “The Role of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition.”

The symposium focused mainly on the broad range of biotechnologies that could result in yield increases, better nutritional qualities, and improved productivity of crops, livestock, fish and trees benefitting family farms. These include many applications such as fermentation processes, bio-fertilizers, artificial insemination, the production of vaccines, disease diagnostics, the development of bio-pesticides and the use of molecular markers in developing new plant varieties.

UN statistics indicate that one out of every nine people in the world is currently unable to eat enough nutrient energy to conduct an active and healthy life. In this context, Graziano da Silva said biotechnologies, knowledge and innovation must be available, accessible and applicable to family farmers and small holders.

Such issues are getting a wide hearing these days, including by the Philippine government Departments of Agriculture, Science and Technology, Environment and Natural Resources, Health, and Interior and Local Government. These agencies this week issued a joint ruling expected to lift a temporary ban on research, field-testing, commercialization and importation of genetically modified crops and biotech products in the country imposed by the country’s Supreme Court last December.

The scientific and academic community, farmer groups, traders, food and feed processors, and livestock producers had all criticized the ban. Dr. Emil Q. Javier, a noted Filipino scientist, academician and chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines, said the temporary ban helped change public opinion about the science and benefits of genetically modified organisms by drawing attention to the issue and encouraging researchers to raise their voices about such advances in science and technology.

More specific to wheat, leaders from the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) are raising concerns about the economic viability of wheat production in the United States, and promoting the potential role of all new technologies to help.

For example, NAWG is developing a National Wheat Action Plan and a yield contest. In addition, at the recent Commodity Classic event, NAWG’s past president Brett Blankenship said the industry also wants to focus on such improvements in seed technologies as biotechnology and other “new breeding techniques shy of GMO.”

The Washington farmer spoke in favor of advancements in wheat genetics. When asked if he would grow biotech wheat on his own property, Blankenship said that “would be a marketing decision more than an agronomic one.” He pointed to the high volume of Washington wheat exported to markets that are “sensitive” to biotechnology.

For more information about the joint positions of USW and NAWG on agricultural biotechnology, visit here.

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Each year the United States exports, on average, 25 to 35 million metric tons (MMT) of wheat, which accounts for roughly 50 percent of the annual crop. This makes the voice of overseas customers important to wheat research. To demonstrate that importance, four wheat breeders will travel with U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) to Asia, April 18 to 26, 2015, on a Wheat Quality Improvement Team (WQIT).

The team will visit with buyers and end-users in Japan, Korea and Thailand to listen and exchange ideas. Their primary goal will be to gather input on wheat quality from key customers to inform their own research and to share what they learn with other U.S. wheat breeders upon their return. They will also share the successful efforts of the U.S. wheat industry to improve the quality of newly released varieties.

“It is vital that we actively listen to and respect the needs of our overseas customers,” said USW Vice President and West Coast Office Director Steve Wirsching, who will lead the team. “The impact breeders have on the industry and the livelihood of farmers is huge. Ultimately, if a variety offers higher yield potential but does not have strong milling or baking qualities that domestic and overseas customers need, farmers will feel that impact.”

This is the fourth WQIT led by USW. In 2004, a similar trip was made to Asia, followed by Latin America in 2009, and Europe and North Africa in 2010. State commissions in Oregon, Washington, North Dakota and Minnesota identified and sponsored top wheat breeders from their land grant universities to join this team.

Dr. Arron H. Carter leads the winter wheat breeding and genetics program at Washington State University where his research focuses on breeding improved wheat varieties for cropping systems in Washington state that incorporate diverse rotations and environments.

Dr. Michael Flowers is an assistant professor and extension cereals specialist at Oregon State University where his research areas include variety trials, nitrogen management in hard wheat and management practices for new Oregon winter wheat varieties.

Dr. Mohamed Mergoum represents North Dakota State University as the Richard C. Frohberg Spring Wheat Breeding/Genetics Endowed Professor. His program’s main objectives are to develop modern and improved cultivars adapted to the spring wheat region and generate wheat germplasm with valuable economic traits required in cultivar development.

Dr. James Anderson is a professor in wheat breeding and genetics at the University of Minnesota where the program he leads researches genetic investigations of complexly inherited traits, including disease resistance and grain quality, and incorporating disease and pest resistance into new cultivars using marker-assisted selection.

The WQIT is a part of a larger USW effort to address the quality of exported wheat and the needs of importing countries. It is a logical next step to a 17-year-old program called the “Overseas Variety Analysis” or OVA program. Through OVA, USW cooperates with millers and bakers to compare the performance of flour from newly or soon-to-be released U.S. wheat varieties to the local country’s standards. Results — both good and not-so-good — are shared with breeders and with state wheat commissions who develop recommended variety lists for wheat farmers. USW currently works with 22 OVA cooperators around the world. During the upcoming trip, the team will participate in an OVA workshop at the UFM Baking School in Bangkok, Thailand, to hear directly from several Asian cooperators.

USW will post photos and other information from the 2015 WQIT on its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/uswheat.

USW is the industry’s market development organization working in more than 100 countries. Its mission is to “develop, maintain, and expand international markets to enhance the profitability of U.S. wheat producers and their customers.” USW activities are made possible through producer checkoff dollars managed by 19 state wheat commissions and cost-share funding provided by USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. USW maintains 17 offices strategically located around the world to help wheat buyers, millers, bakers, wheat food processors and government officials understand the quality, value and reliability of all six classes of U.S. wheat.