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What will the wheat genome map mean for the fight for acres?

Posted by Robert Herrmann on 22 August 2018
Robert Herrmann
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The announcement that scientists have successfully mapped the wheat genome is significant. Firstly, for the fact that the scale of this achievement is huge; the wheat genome map is five times the size of the human genome map.

But also important is the impact this will have on wheat as a source of food supply into the future, and by extrapolation the effect this event will have on future land use in general.

This break-through now puts wheat at the forefront of crops and sets up future plant breeding and improvement well into the future.

Obvious areas that will be addressed as a result of mapping the genome sequence include:wheat genome

  • Improving drought tolerance
  • Developing pest and rust resistance
  • Breeding wheat suitable for people with Gluten intolerance
  • Increasing yield

These are all measures that will contribute to increased wheat production as well as improved efficiencies at the farm level. The impact will be long-lived, with estimates of a return on investment to be in the $1,000’s for every $1 spent.

Fight for acres                                                                                                                                   Image source: Illumina Technology

Any significant event such as this should not be looked at in isolation, there will be causal effects. This achievement in particular has the potential to change the game in the “fight for acres”.  If future breeds of wheat have greater capacity to deal with some of the risks inherent in growing, it will make it an even more attractive option for broad acre farmers.

This change will continue to apply pressure on broad acre livestock production; as an example, over recent times the decline in the Australian sheep flock has correlated directly with increased acres cropped.

In 1990 we had around 170 million sheep with circa 12 million hectares under crop. Today the sheep flock hovers around 70 million and grain and oilseed production has grown towards 20 million hectares.

The widespread frost in southern Australia last year and the current drought on the East Coast has kept grain producers thinking about the risk mitigation from running some sheep in conjunction with their cropping operation. Livestock can offset the risk of adverse seasonal conditions compared to “wall–to–wall” cropping.

This announcement has the potential to change that risk profile. Will it mean that those with significant investment in cropping machinery will in the future be able to increase their crop acreage without increasing seasonal risk?

million hectare crops

R & D investment

This research had 23 countries involved and took an investment of 16 billion over 13 years. The fact that wheat is planted around the globe meant that the R & D funding could be spread across many countries as the future benefits will be felt by all wheat producers.

While the beef industry also has a worldwide footprint, the same cannot be said for sheepmeat and wool. This means that investment in R&D for the sheep industry has to come from Australia and to a lesser extent New Zealand – these are the only two countries with any significant sheepmeat and wool exports. This amplifies the challenge for the future of sheep and wool R&D; to compete for acres in the future continuous and substantial R&D will be required to even maintain the status quo at farm level, with R&D funding predominately provided by Australia.

Topics: wheat, science, Land use

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