It’s been a strange summer for wheat. If there is one cereal that has got people talking recently, it is the illustrious descendent of triticale: alternately victim of drought, then super-star of the journal Science, wheat has been harvesting press reviews, illustrating single-handedly how much science and technology, contrary to what some would have us believe, are intimately linked to the future of our agriculture and therefore of our society. Now this makes a nice case study.
Agriculture suffering from drought
European wheat production fell sharply in the summer of 2018 with only 136.6 million tonnes produced in 2018, ie 15 million tonnes less than in 2017. Sylvain Poncelet, analyst at Agritel notes that Europe is divided into three major regions “The South, which includes the Iberian Peninsula, Italy and the Balkans, has had a good harvest. The West, i.e. a good part of France, the Benelux countries and Great Britain, has had a disappointing harvest, especially in regions where there were significant excess rainfall levels in Spring, such as in south-west France. In the North – Germany, Poland and the Scandinavian countries – it’s a wasteland. Unusually high temperatures since the end of April have halved the volumes harvested: an unprecedented drop “ (1) Worldwide, production is expected to fall by 30.2 million tonnes. The consequence naturally will be an increase in prices. If grain farmers who have seen prices falling for over five years may now rub their hands in anticipation, consumers will have to plan to tighten their belts. The analyst continues: “The agriculture and livestock sector is likely to suffer significantly. Wheat will go primarily for human consumption as we’re not going to stop eating. But higher prices will no longer permit the use of wheat for forage. For animal feed, wheat will have to be replaced with other cereal crops.” However, it looks likely that the corn and soybean harvests will also suffer from drought. As a result, it is quite likely that we are entering a period of food insecurity. In addition, “Wheat production will have to increase by 1.6% per year to meet the demand of a world population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050”… Crisis.
Genomics to the rescue
As the threat of food shortage unfolds in the background, a happy coincidence reminds us that human beings are never short of resourcefulness. On August 17th, 2018, the journal Science published a landmark paper: “Shifting the limits in wheat research and breeding using a fully annotated reference genome” (2). The International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC) brings new hope for the future development of this cereal which is essential to human nutrition as its production covers one fifth of the total calories consumed by humans. This announcement represents a real feat of genomics, because until now its hexaploid genome, composed of three subgenomes, 21 chromosomes and 85% repetitive DNA, has hindered the genetic improvement of the plant and the full exploitation of its potential. For Kostya Kanyuka, functional genomics researcher for Rothamsted Research, one of the project leaders, “This will greatly speed up our efforts on identification of agriculturally important wheat genes, including those that would help to combat major fungal diseases…” This advance will greatly facilitate the development of new traits (already in progress) such as: resistance to disease or salt, “bio-reinforced” wheat (Washington State University, for example, is currently conducting experiments to suppress gliadin, a protein that causes celiac disease, which causes some people to be allergic to gluten), and finally, drought tolerant wheat. This feature, as we have seen from our first paragraph, is crucial. It should be noted, however, that within the European Community, laboratories working on wheat will have to take a very specific decision into account: on 25th July, the European Court of Justice issued a judgement which requires plants derived from mutagenesis to be considered in the same way as GMOs (see our analysis on this subject). If implemented, this decision could mean that all the new NBT (New Breeding Techniques) applications that the sequencing of the entire wheat genome will enable would be delayed, or even prevented altogether by nit-picking legislation. This decision could even have an impact on an organic wheat variety like “Renan” wheat, as several experts point out.
Precision agriculture a target
In May this year, the University of South Australia announced the launch of a new agricultural technology solution using drones. These help to compile a “vegetation index” that provides information on seed health, moisture and nutrient content, which helps farmers to improve their crops and seed growers to create new varieties. Professor Stanley Miklavcic, Director of the Phenomics and Bioinformatics Research Centre at UniSA, says the technology will provide quantities of information to Australian farmers: “Wheat production is an important industry for Australia, yet to produce high quality Australian wheat in a hot and dry climate, farmers rely upon the development of resilient varieties. When you’re growing crops in the driest continent in the world, being able to identify stress-tolerant crop varieties is critical—and this is where our new technology can help” (3). As most experts would testify, precision agriculture looks like a great solution for the future. All the more so as its developments are accessible to all, even the poorest farmers in Africa.
Genomics and precision agriculture to the rescue of wheat and humanity is a beautiful story that seems to be unfolding on every continent. Let us hope that this can continue unobstructed – including on the European continent.
(1) After the drought, the consequences of a rare and expensive wheat, in l’Opinion, https://www.lopinion.fr/edition/economie/apres-secheresse-consequences-d-ble-rare-cher-158483
(2) The International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC), IWGSC RefSeq principal investigators: Rudi Appels, “Shifting the limits in wheat research and breeding using a fully annotated reference genome”, in Science http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6403/eaar7191