UNL Research Focuses On Increasing Wheat Yield With Growing World Population

UNL researchers work to test wheat's ability to withstand heat. (Courtesy photo)
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April 18, 2019 - 6:45am

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher has been testing hybrid wheat lines throughout Nebraska to determine their agronomic worth. The focus is on better wheat yield and agronomic performance and determining the genetic components that may be of value in future global climate change scenarios. Brandon McDermott of NET News sits down with researcher Stephen Baenziger to discuss his research and a recent meeting with the Nebraska Congressional Delegation in Washington D.C.


Brandon McDermott, NET News: When it comes to wheat it's a self-pollinated crop and you're working to convert that into a cross-pollinated plant like corn. Why is this so important?

Stephen Baenziger: The reason is because we want to try to capture what they call hybrid vigor or “heterosis.” For those who may be unfamiliar with that – corn is made from two inbred lines and wheat is sold as an inbred line. That's why it's a soft-pollinated crop. We think we can get higher yielding, better quality, and more climate-resilient types of varieties or hybrids by making hybrids over our pure lines. So, that's the reason why we're interested in making a cross-pollinated crop – is to make it into a hybrid.

A map of Nebraska with annual rainfall totals and locations superimposed. The red dots are areas Stephen Baenziger and his team are testing hybrids and breeding lines. (Courtesy of UNL Agronomy)

 

McDermott: When predicting what food people will eat by 2050 – as well as the world's population (growth) – how will we need to change what we are doing going forward to meet those projections and how is your work helping in that – specifically with yield.

Baenziger: Everybody talks about the 9 billion people we're going to have in 2050. What they don't tell you is that in wheat, two-thirds of the production gains we need is due to population growth. One-third is due to income growth because we'd as a convenience food – you buy bread it's already cooked for you. So the 9 billion people that we're looking at will actually be the equivalent of 12 billion people eating today. In order to do that you need to have productivity increases of about 1.6% per year between now and 2050.

Our current productivity is at 1% so I'm very concerned we don't have a strategy to succeed; we have a strategy that if we continue on the same course is one to fail. When it comes to agriculture and food security and feeding people – that's not a strategy I want to be part of. So we're trying to change the game of wheat, by making it in into a hybrid so that we can increase the genetic gain, increase the productivity, so that in 2050 my grandchildren and other people's grandchildren can have enough food to eat.

McDermott: You recently traveled to Washington D.C. to press Congress for more federal funding on ag research. Who did you meet with and what was your takeaway from those meetings?

Baenziger: Well we were very fortunate. Agriculture is very important to Nebraska. We met with all of the Nebraska delegation. They only had 4 interviews set up. They thought that was enough. We missed Adrian Smith in the West. But we met with Senator Fisher's office, Senator Sasse’s office, Congressman Fortenberry’s office and Congressman Bacon's office. They're all very supportive of agriculture. Of course, they have difficult times with the federal budget and what not. They're all supportive of research. They asked excellent questions. We tried to answer them the best we could. I thought it was very good citizen engagement with the people who control the funding.

Current yield for wheat, rice and corn in both developed and developing countries. (Courtesy graph)

 

McDermott: When it comes to getting better yields – keeping in mind climate change – how important is it for researchers like yourself to focus on climate resiliency of seeds?

Baenziger: Well, I actually think it's hugely important and the reason I do this is because people don't understand, I think, that we already have ways of mitigating climate change. They happen to be economic ways – if you look at FEMA, if you look at crop insurance – those type of things – that's how growers are currently mitigating climate change and weather-related activities. One of the things that is surprising about hybrids is they do remarkably well under adverse climate conditions.

If you wanted to sort of stabilize yields in an environment that is fluctuating that has a lot of random differences from year to year – those types of changes – hybrids seem to do really well. To give you an example, we've just started this research and we test all across the state. In Alliance, we tested 600 random hybrids and about 18 were better than our best pure line – our best inbred line. We looked at the same thing at Lincoln, had very good weather here. About 20 were better than our best pure line. We went to North Platte where we had drought stress out of the 600, over 200 hybrids were better than the best pure line.

McDermott: What does that say to you?

Baenziger: What it says to me is that everything we've seen in the literature – everything we've seen – is that hybrids can take adverse weather conditions and still yield better than a pure line.

How could you pay for that? Well if you had climate resiliency, you would be paying less in crop insurance, but certainly under heat and drought – if you could reduce the losses – that would be huge for food security but it's also huge as a governmental policy to try to reduce your expenditures.

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