5 – An answer to a (Plant breeder’s) prayer

17 July, 2017

The most famous Christian prayer, the Lord’s prayer, has a line “Give us this day our daily bread”. It’s a prayer wheat breeders, whatever their religious creed, have constantly participated in answering down through the decades.

The challenge facing wheat breeders seems to be unrelenting. This century, by 2050, an additional 3 billion people need to be fed, with less likelihood of an easy expansion of the global area of agriculture and with agriculture facing the prospect of a changing global climate. Meeting these challenges requires an on-going commitment to wheat breeding and continued agricultural innovation.  

Wheat is currently the source of one-fifth of all the calories and protein consumed globally. So wheat breeding plays a crucial role in helping feed the world. Fortunately, wheat breeders in many countries have been successful in improving wheat yields (paired with better management) as in Figure 1, and as such, are helping to feed the world’s growing population.

Figure 1. Wheat yields since 1961 in four important wheat-producing countries Source: Data extracted from FAOSTAT (2017)

Financing Wheat Breeding

Most wheat breeding around the world is performed by government agencies. A recent exception to this, however, is Australia. Up until 2000, 98 per cent of wheat breeding in Australia was performed by the public sector and the annual investment was approximately AUD$18 million. Yet by 2015, under an end point royalty system, wheat breeding in Australia has become privatized, funded by royalties and private sector capital injections which result in an annual investment in wheat breeding of over AUD$45 million. By illustration, Australian Grain Technologies, Australia’s largest wheat breeding company, annually uses over 250,000 yield plots (see photo 1), whereas the entire wheat breeding effort in Canada, the United Kingdom and France, annually use yield plots numbering only approximately 80,000, 100,000 and 120,000, respectively.

Photo 1: AGT wheat yield plots (Source: AGT)

In Australia, the policy innovations of strengthening breeders’ intellectual property rights and introducing end point royalties have boosted funding for wheat breeding.  The increased investment in recent years has delivered higher yielding, better quality varieties like Mace and Scepter.  Such varieties are sorely needed as the rate of yield improvement in the dry, harsh environment of Australia has been lower than yield improvements in many other countries (see Chart 1), especially since the early 2000s when the early impacts of adverse climate change seem to have emerged in southern Australia. In the often dry, volatile grain-growing environment of southern Australia since the early 2000s, many farmers have become strongly reliant on wheat, and its improvement, due to its broad adaptability to seasonal conditions.

Fortunately for Australia the intensity of funding and organisation of wheat breeding of our wheat export competitors often does not match that in Australia. Wheat breeding in these other countries remains dependent on the public purse. Pressures on government finances usually means limited public funds for wheat breeding in some of these countries. Furthermore, whilst wheat with any GM trait remains unpopular and hybrid wheat is still being developed, there is less likelihood of attracting sizeable investments from private firms into wheat breeding. So the way in which wheat breeding is currently funded and structured in Australia offers the Australian wheat industry a current source of comparative advantage and helps underpin the resilience of dryland farming in Australia in the face of a changing and variable climate. However, Canada is considering how to change the funding of its wheat breeding, to lessen its strong dependence on the public purse and to inject more industry funds.

For all countries in which wheat production is an important agricultural activity, wheat breeding is a strategic necessity, especially if more people are to be affordably fed in future years. How best to fund that breeding will be a policy and industry challenge in many countries in coming years.

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