Wheat scientists and breeders at the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue on Friday pushed for more research programs for the crop and stressed that genetic engineering will be needed to grow more wheat in the future.
One of the final panel discussions at the weeklong symposium tackled wheat production and rust diseases that plague the crop globally. The panel was reflective of the core of Nobel Prize laureate Norman Borlaug’s life’s work to breed more disease-resistant and higher-yielding varieties of wheat in developing countries. Borlaug helped end some of the scientific complacency in dealing with diseases such as rust.
Panel members focused on an issue Borlaug rarely faced: Having a technology — genetic engineering — that they know can help prevent famine but that is unacceptable in much of the world due to fear.
At the center of the panel discussion was Ug99, one of the most devastating wheat rusts. The disease got its designation after being discovered in Uganda in 1999. It’s a potent rust that can take 100% of a crop and attacks varieties bred to be resistant to other forms of stem rust. Ug99 is still affecting farmers in most East Africa countries, as well as Yemen and Iran. Several strains of Ug99-resistant varieties have been released in North Africa and the Middle East in recent years to help curb the spread of the Ug99 rust globally.
A consortium of companies and wheat breeders has come together to raise the yield potential of wheat by 50% over the next 20 years. Hans Joachim Braun, director of the Global Wheat Program for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known as CIMMYT, was optimistic about work on wheat rust, but he acknowledged complacency is a problem. “Wheat is really relatively underinvested compared to other crops,” Braun said.
Ronnie Coffman, a plant breeding professor at Cornell University, leads a five-year project about Ug99 that was funded by a $40 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Kingdom. The project, which includes dozens of governments, universities and research facilities globally, is looking for wheat genes resistant to stem rust, ways to track the disease and ways to get stem-rust resistant seeds to farmers in countries hit by Ug99.
Coffman said the science is there to deliver rust resistance, but scientists do not have the support from society to provide the science to farmers. To combat virulent rust strains such as Ug99, scientists must discover and successfully transfer multiple resistance genes, Coffman said.
“We need GM technology to do that, initially,” Coffman said.
Cornell also has used $5.6 million in grant money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to start “the Alliance for Science” with the goal of trying to depolarize the debate around ag biotechnology and promote science to decision makers.
“We have two big objectives. One is to try to reclaim the conversation around biotechnology so that science and evidence-based perspectives surround the decision-making,” Coffman said.
The second objective is to “populate the science” with effective communicators, Coffman said. The alliance wants to develop communications training and activities for people who work in biotech and food production. “We all need to communicate better,” Coffman said. “It’s essential.”
Market sensitivity has been the main hindrance preventing commercialization of any biotech wheat varieties. Groups such as the National Association of Wheat Growers support work on biotech crops, but wheat sellers learned how sensitive U.S. wheat buyers are to genetic engineering when a small amount of unapproved biotech wheat was found in an Oregon field last year. Buyers in Japan and South Korea immediately slowed purchases and began testing wheat for GE contamination.
The U.S. exports roughly half of its wheat production a year, including an estimated 1.17 billion bushels this year. Globally, about 166 million tons of wheat are projected for exports this year.
Public acceptance could be even more difficult trying to introduce biotech varieties in parts of Africa and Asia facing the worst rust issues.
Catherine Feuillet, senior vice president of trait research for Bayer CropScience, also serves as a co-chair of an international wheat sequencing consortium. Feuillet, who works to identify disease resistance genes for wheat breeders to use, said wheat is much more complex than other crops. It took Feuillet a decade to isolate one wheat gene. Feuillet said biotechnology could accelerate improvements in wheat.
“If we face a major virus infestation in wheat and the only solution is GM, should we just not do it and let wheat be killed by the virus?” Feuillet said. “This is one of the disconnections I see. People are not concerned about this kind of problem because they have cheap food all of the time. People in poorer countries do not have the luxury for these kinds of debates.”
In September, Bayer CropScience announced a plan to spend roughly $1.9 billion through 2020 for research and development in wheat. Over the next 20 years, research should lead to both wheat hybrids and biotech traits to boost global production. However, Feuillet acknowledges potential market sensitivity to adding biotech wheat crops to global markets.
“I think we are facing really big challenges here and I am a scientist, so I have to look at this rationally,” she said. “It is a resource we can use. I think if we give up completely, we are missing an opportunity. As a scientist, I think we have to keep working on it.”
Feuillet, who is French, works between Bayer facilities in Research Triangle, N.C., and Ghent, Belgium. She said work in Europe is frustrating and almost nothing biotech can be tested in Europe.
“Most of the companies don’t see any hope of doing anything in Europe anymore. For me, as a European, I don’t see this as a great view, but we have to continue to deal with it,” she said.