Avisit to a wheat field in Würselen near Aachen illustrates the dimension of the problems that need to be solved. Fritz Esser, a farmer, contemplates his fields of wheat. It looks like a good harvest until he breaks off an ear of wheat and starts counting. “Eleven rows of kernels. In good years there are up to 14. We won’t have a bumper crop this year, but we already knew that back in April.” The plant decides very early on in the year how many rows of kernels it is going to allow to grow on each stalk. Esser explains, “If it’s very dry during this stage, the plant automatically reduces the numbers of rows.” The plants basically go into energy-saving mode and the crop turns out low.
Before Esser could harvest his crop, the weather caused him the next headache, with days of steady rain. This is bad for the wheat because it makes the plants susceptible to attack by fungal diseases.
New wheat varieties could help the farmer with both problems. Wheat needs to be made more productive and more resistant to disease.
Farmers like Esser produce one of the world’s most important foods.
So far global wheat production has managed to keep up with the growing world population, but wheat is now starting to become scarce. In six of the past ten years, global demand has exceeded the amount harvested. Although stored wheat came to the rescue in these cases, the situation will be more critical in the future. Seven billion people live on our planet at the moment, with the figure set to rise to nine billion by 2050. They will all need enough to eat. That will only happen if new, higher-yielding varieties of cereal can be bred.
This is precisely where Bayer CropScience is seeking to play a leading role. “We are already the world leader in crop protection products for wheat,” explains biochemist Dr. Marcus Weidler. He and his colleague Rick Turner manage the company’s wheat seed program.
Some provide the starting material in the form of existing seed varieties. Others know where to find the genes that can confer improved properties on plants. And still others know how to incorporate these genes into existing wheat varieties, or how to test new varieties in the field.
“We primarily want to improve yield, nutrient utilization and resistance to stress factors such as drought and disease,” explains Dr. Michael Metzlaff, a biotechnology specialist at Bayer. But it takes far too long to meet these objectives using conventional breeding methods. So the company is setting its sights on the possibilities offered by biotechnology and on its network of experts, which stretches from Ghent in Belgium to the Australian capital Canberra. The first genes have already been identified and experiments investigating how they affect wheat are already under way.
Farmers like Fritz Esser have great expectations of the efforts being made by Bayer CropScience. “I’d like to see varieties that produce good harvests even under extreme weather conditions,” Esser says. He’ll have to wait a few years, but then new, high-yielding varieties should start coming onto the market.
By Karl Hübner