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New Initiative to develop heat-tolerant, high-yielding wheat varieties to tackle climate change

November 5, 2013

A new multi-institutional initiative focused on developing wheat varieties that are resilient to the warming effects of climate change has been launched. The initiative, to be led by Kansas State University, will initially focus on wheat in South Asia, which typically produces 20% of the world’s wheat crop.

 “This project signifies a new era of ‘big science’ for international wheat development,” says Jesse Poland, research geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a K-State adjunct assistant professor of agronomy. “The team will generate the largest public resource of elite candidate wheat varieties, along with seed and genetic information in wheat history. The wheat varieties generated by the project will have enhanced climate resilience, combining heat tolerance with heat avoidance (earliness), and maximized yield potential.”  Professor Poland will lead the team, which includes researchers from K-State, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture

 “Globally, wheat production is increasing at a rate of 1 percent annually, but there is evidence of yield stagnation in some regions, including South Asia,” says Prof Poland;  “In fact, climate models predict that in tropical and sub-tropical regions such as South Asia, yield will decrease by 10 percent for every 1 degree rise in temperature. Given current cultivars and production practices, this would likely reduce production levels by 30% in these regions.”

 A 30% production cut in wheat could prove devastating for people in South Asia and other developing regions, which rely on the wheat crop for not only a source of income, but also their own food, Prof Poland observes. And the effects wouldn’t end there. Wheat provides 21% of the food calories and 20% of the protein for more than 4.5 billion people in 94 developing countries. 

 “In the developing world, wheat is the primary staple for more than 1.2 billon and an important food source for 2.5 billion living in poverty, many of whom are living on less than $2 (U.S.) a day,” he says. “And wheat is the primary income source for some 30 million poor wheat farmers and their families.”

 The demand for wheat, he said, is projected to increase 60 percent by the year 2050. At the same time, rising temperatures induced by climate change are expected to cut wheat production in developing countries by 20 – 30%. The combined factors are expected to double wheat prices, pushing it beyond many consumers’ reach.

 The team will use “genomic selection” to boost genetic gains in wheat targeted to future warmer climates with a goal to develop heat-tolerant, high-yielding, and farmer-accepted varieties for South Asia.  The project builds on research already done at CIMMYT, where scientists have established a framework that identifies traits that limit wheat performance under heat stress. Field evaluations will take place at the Borlaug Institute for South Asia sites in India, as well as sites in Pakistan.  The five-year $5 million project, which creates the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics, is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of Feed the Future , the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative.

This piece is adapted from an article that appeared on the AGProfessional website.

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