During my internship with IBA last month (see News Analysis, p. 50), I heard a staggering statistic about U.S. cropland. Reportedly, land tied up under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) represents the fourth largest crop in the country, after corn, soybeans and wheat. In other words, farmers are being paid not to farm the fourth biggest acreage in the country.
Granted, not all of that land may be viable for growing in its current state, but it still seems like a lot of wasted space, considering the current commodity crisis. Because the government seems reluctant to release CRP land, or at least a good portion of it, should more focus be placed on increasing wheat yields?
While in D.C., I heard both Jim Bair, North American Millers' Association, and Jim Hess, Horizon Milling, discuss the issue of wheat yields in comparison to corn.
“Wheat needs to be a more economically competitive crop to grow,” Bair says. Currently, wheat produces about 40 bushels per acre versus 175 bushels per acre for corn. In addition, the average yield increase per year for wheat versus corn is 1.33 percent and 2.66 percent respectively.
Biotech wheat could be a viable option for increasing yields. Researchers in Australia have already had successful trials of genetically modified (GM) wheat with drought tolerance that produced yields 20 percent higher than non-GM types. Aside from producing crops that are more agronomically viable, biotechnology could avert an even greater economic and demand crisis than what currently exists.
Ug-99 is a fungus so severe, it can wipe out an entire wheat crop. Fungal spores produced by Ug-99 cause what's known as rust disease that 99 percent of wheat varietals have no resistance to, Bair notes.
The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the USDA's research arm, is working on developing genetic varieties of wheat resistant to the fungal strain, prompted by agronomist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug's request. Borlaug considers the Ug-99 threat one of the most serious to wheat and barley in 50 years.
Improvements in yield, providing more incentive for farmers to plant wheat, might be just one of the benefits of biotech wheat. While I fully acknowledge that biotech crops are controversial and not accepted throughout the world, as a scientist, I believe biotechnology will play a significant role in future agronomics affecting the baking industry.