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Improving the staff of life

At first glance, the press release issued by the Canadian Wheat Board earlier this month is a classic “dog bites man” story. The board announced the vast majority of Prairie wheat farmers (88 per cent to be exact) grow varieties that are used primarily to produce bread and pasta.

What’s more, this is not a change from past practices, the board said, a statement that makes the first one seem even more mundane.

But sometimes no change is in fact newsworthy – especially if everything else has changed.

With all the hype over biofuels over the past couple years, it would be easy for non-farmers to think producers are getting rich feeding cars rather than people.

Most of the time, it doesn’t make sense for a Prairie farmer to purposely grow grains that can only be used for biofuel production. Production costs are nearly as high as for milling grains and the yields – although higher – are not high enough to compensate for the lower market values.

Prairie farmers typically grow varieties that are eligible for the high-quality export markets; they sell it for feed if drought, frost or some other fluke of nature takes it out of that market.

Nevertheless, there are breeding efforts underway to create high-yielding, lower-quality industrial wheats. A new non-milling class of wheat was launched this year specifically for that purpose, but farmers have yet to see many varieties commercialized.

While it has proven wonderfully adaptable to different regions of the world, wheat has proven to be a tough crop to “improve” because it is so darned complex.

In fact, if the biological order of things were related to genetic complexity, humans would be servants to wheat, not serving it in sandwiches.

Wheat DNA is five times more complex than a human’s. Until very recently scientists viewed it as all but impossible to map – which is the first step towards targeting specific genes for manipulation.

Rather than mechanically shuffling genes around or introducing new ones, as in the case of genetically modified crops, scientists have had to blindly and ever-so-humbly steer wheat in the direction they wish it to go – encouraging traits such as rust resistance or milling characteristics through repeated crosses and backcrosses.

In some areas, such as hybridization, the crop has proven stubbornly difficult to convince.

Perhaps that’s a good thing – given the fickle nature of market forces.

World markets were just getting over the low-carb hangover when biofuels hit. Only two years into this latest craze, it seems world leaders are having second thoughts about using food crops for fuel. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization launched an appeal on World Food Day last week for governments to reconsider biofuel subsidies and mandates.

All this makes us a little nervous about news that scientists are about to unravel the mysteries of wheat’s genetic code.

According to press reports, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research has isolated the largest wheat chromosome – chromosome 3B – which has since been 80 per cent mapped.

No doubt it is a huge scientific breakthrough. The 3B chromosome alone is more than twice the size of the entire rice genome. Rice was the first major food crop to have its genetic code cracked – and that was only six years ago.

The lead researcher is quoted as saying it will take another five years before they have mapped the whole wheat genome. But once that’s done, researchers will have an easier time identifying genes to target for conventional or genetically modified crop varieties.

That could reduce the time and cost of varietal development, which in turn is expected to make wheat breeding more appealing to the better-funded private sector research and development firms. Until now, wheat-breeding research has been left up to public researchers and farmers through agencies such as the Western Canadian Research Foundation.

Once crops such as canola were developed and commercialized by public researchers, the private trade took on varietal development and ran with it – all the way to the bank. Private sector breeding, for practical reasons, focuses on return on investment, which may or may not be consistent with developments that are for the greater good.

The thought of sending wheat down a similar path should give us pause – especially if the research focuses on turning a highly nutritious crop that is a staple food for 35 per cent of the world’s population into something more suitable for a fuel tank.

As smart as we humans think we are, our food systems are routinely thrown into mayhem by simple single-cell organisms such as listeria. We’d be wise to keep our humble hats on when messing with something as sophisticated as wheat. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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