The giant seed and pesticide company says it expects to nearly quadruple North American wheat yields
Corn and soybeans are getting lots of ink as Manitoba acreage skyrockets. Canola has had a long run as the Prairies’ Cinderella crop.
And then there’s wheat.
Considered merely a ‘rotation’ crop by some farmers, it feeds more people and is planted on more acres than any other crop on Earth.
But it hasn’t come close to reaching its potential, said Norm Dreger, head of cereals for Syngenta in North America, which is upping its investments in new wheats for Western Canada and the world.
“It’s almost like the last frontier,” Dreger said at a recent meeting at Syngenta’s research farm southeast of Portage la Prairie. “First of all it’s huge — half a billion acres (seeded worldwide). A lot of people wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for wheat. It’s very diverse for its uses. And there’s the huge (yield) potential.”
North American wheat yields average around 40 bushels an acre now, but Syngenta is aiming at 150.
“Syngenta’s ambition is to transform cereal production worldwide by creating innovative solutions, which set unprecedented standards for yield, quality and sustainability,” said Dreger. “Syngenta is very committed to wheat.”
Hybridizing wheat, which has been difficult because of its complex genome, will add 15 per cent to yields in the near term, Dreger predicted. Researchers are also working to help wheat use water, nutrients and sunlight more efficiently, and further gains are expected from improved agronomics, pesticides, and pesticide applications.
Syngenta also collaborates with other wheat breeders, including in the public sector, and is working with CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre.
Global wheat production is increasing by 0.9 per cent a year, but global demand is growing by 1.5 per cent a year, said Hans-Joachim Bruan CIMMYT’s director of global wheat.
“Partnerships like this can greatly benefit the world’s farmers, rich and poor,” he said on Syngenta’s website.
Not everyone supports large multinational companies expanding their role in new varieties. The National Farmers Union fears higher seed costs for farmers.
According to the ETC Group, which is critical of corporate concentration in seed and pesticide production, the world’s top three corporations control 53 per cent of the world’s commercial seed market and the top 10 control 76 per cent.
Others including the Grain Growers of Canada, which supports public wheat breeding, welcome and encourage private plant breeding.
Syngenta, headquartered in Switzerland, is among the world’s biggest seed and pesticide companies with US$10.1 billion in pesticide sales alone in 2011, according to the ETC Group.
But its size also gives it the wherewithal to spend big on wheat research, which Dreger said is “way north of $100 million (a year) and south of $200 million.”
Around 450 of Syngenta’s 27,000 employees work on wheat, and the company is in it for the long run, he said.
“It’s an art, not just a science,” he said. “It takes tenacity and patience. Breeders are very optimistic. It would be easy to get pessimistic and give up, but you’ve got to hang in there.”
Syngenta’s renewed focus on wheat coincides with major changes in Western Canada’s wheat sector. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, which over the last 40 years produced about 75 per cent of wheat varieties grown in the West, said it’s going to stop producing new wheats and focus on developing new lines others can commercialize. As well, the CWB’s monopoly on wheat exports ended last year, and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz is pushing for a streamlining of new crop registration.
There are some good ideas on how to get new wheats to market faster, but his company wants the registration criteria clearly spelled out, said Dreger.
“Only if it’s not clear would you have some sort of panel (decide) and that panel itself needs to be small and focused and not political,” he said.
Farmers want higher-yielding varieties but any new variety must meet end-users’ needs, he said.
Neither Syngenta officials, nor those invited to the all-day meeting mentioned genetically modified wheat.
Syngenta supports the technology, but also recognizes it can’t be used until there’s widespread public acceptance, Dreger said in a later interview.
“Right now we feel we have other technologies we should be putting our limited resources towards to help farmers in the shorter and medium term that will be totally accepted and will benefit the grower.”