By Bruce Barker
The tipping point could come within the next 50 years. With the world’s population steadily growing, a desire for increased food quality and meat demand is also squeezing food production. “Global wheat production is increasing at only 0.9 percent each year,” says Hans-Joachim Braun, director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program. “This is a very critical issue, as global demand is growing at 1.5 percent or more annually. Combined with the impacts of climate change, we must avoid the risk of another food crisis and ensure farmers across the world are equipped to meet the demands of a rising world population.”
CIMMYT is the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, an internationally funded, not-for-profit organization centred in Mexico, that conducts research and training related to maize and wheat throughout the developing world. It partnered with global crop protection and seed company Syngenta in 2010 to focus on the development and advancement of technology in wheat. The collaboration is for five years with an option to extend the agreement.
The agreement will enable joint research and development in the areas of improving wheat traits, both native and genetically modified (GM): development of hybrid wheat; and enhancing wheat performance through the combination of seeds and crop protection. Although the partnership is focused on the long term, the emphasis on a global initiative could eventually bring benefits to western Canadian farmers.
John Atkin, chief operating officer for Syngenta Crop Protection in Basel, Switzerland, says that not only must wheat development be environmentally sustainable, but farmers must profit as well. “An integrated system of seed and crop production technology, which would produce greater yield and productivity, has to improve farmer productivity and profit, because we have seen in recent years in some markets improvements in yields but farmer profitability hasn’t been so good. I’m thinking of parts of Europe in particular,” says Atkin.
Syngenta brings to the table its genetic marker technology, advanced traits platform and wheat breeding program for the developed world. CIMMYT has access to wheat’s genetic diversity, a global partnership network and a wheat-breeding program targeted at the developing world. Working in partnership should speed wheat production improvements.
Atkin says a focus on hybrid wheat could result in “a step change in wheat production” much like the dramatically increased corn production that occurred with the development of hybrid corn in the 20th century.
CIMMYT’s Braun says exploring native traits such as improved drought and stress tolerance will be important in improving wheat productivity. At the same time, he says using GM technology will be extremely important in increasing wheat yield and quality. Atkin acknowledges that the use of GM technology will require an approach that generates broad public benefits; otherwise, the marketplace may not embrace the technology. “We are very sensitive, very conscious of the importance of communicating the benefits of GM technology to consumers, the value chain and stakeholders. We are equally committed that we will do that first before introducing technology. We won’t do it unless there is broad acceptance and agreement that there are real benefits,” explains Atkin.
For CIMMYT, the partnership will strengthen its ability to use world wheat genetic resources and cutting-edge technologies to develop robust wheat varieties for disadvantaged farmers in developing countries and public research systems worldwide. “Partnerships like this can greatly benefit the world’s farmers, rich and poor,” says Braun.