Funding bodies around the world have staked $100 million on the idea that wheat yields can be increased 50 per cent by 2035 using advanced breeding techniques while also increasing incomes for farmers globally.
Included is the GRDC, which has invested $10 million to fund Australian participants in what amounts to a second Green Revolution and is called the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP).
Now, the IWYP is reporting that impressive progress has been made from the first round of funded projects, which are due to report during 2019.
The core idea at the heart of this program is that by optimising photosynthesis traits, wheat can potentially convert more atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, which can then be shunted into making more grain.
If adverse events such as drought were experienced over a relatively few seasons, impacts on global grain stocks would be dramatic, including socio-economically damaging price spikes leading to social unrest in many countries.
The IWYP says that achieving this goal requires radically improving the way wheat plants capture and use solar radiation: from increasing the efficiency of complex photosynthetic pathways all the way through to ensuring light penetration is more evenly distributed over the canopy.
Targeted traits include photosynthesis, plant architecture, plant biomass distribution, and grain size and number.
IWYP is reporting progress on all fronts.
Key achievements include: the development of germplasm containing yield-improving traits; DNA markers associated with the IWYP yield traits; gene mutations that change the expression of a yield trait; new methods or technologies to better screen individual plants; and optimised methods to rapidly screen or manipulate traits at the genetic level.
A second Green Revolution
Richard Flavell, the chair of the IWYP Science and Impact Executive Board, says that success is essential to future global food security, since current estimates strongly indicate that wheat supplies could fall well short of growing global demand in the coming decades.
The need for year-on-year wheat yield increases was starkly illustrated in 2018, according to the IWYP 2017-18 annual report. Less-than-optimal environmental conditions - such as droughts in Europe and North America - reduced wheat yields in several regions around the world.
The report states that if adverse events such as drought were experienced over a relatively few seasons, impacts on global grain stocks would be dramatic, including socio-economically damaging price spikes leading to social unrest in many countries.
Wheat stocks in 2018 were down 5 per cent from 2017 and some countries, including China, have taken the precautionary measure of collecting huge stockpiles of wheat that are unlikely to be made accessible internationally in an emergency.
"The IWYP seeks to avoid the global situation from reaching crisis points by funding 'entrepreneurial discovery research' based on delivery of yield-enhancing germplasm to all wheat breeding enterprises in the world," the IWYP reported.
"It amounts to a new model for dealing with global agricultural problems that has much to offer other sectors seeking innovations to meet global challenges."
The IWYP has adopted a model where funding and research is combined between countries, with researchers forming collaborative networks to tap world-best complementary expertise and bid for funds via a global competitive process.
Given Australian excellence in photosynthesis research, Australian laboratories are leading or participating in a total of five out of seven of IWYP funded projects.
A new innovation pipeline
Included within the IWYP research structure is a development pipeline to ensure the rapid and efficient delivery of new photosynthesis-based traits to breeders. It is called the IWYP Hub for spring wheat and is based at the Mexican field station of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT).
The IWYP Hub provides field validation services for new photosynthesis traits and taps CIMMYT's globally important ability to develop, test and roll out elite wheat germplasm with demonstrated value around the world, including in Australia.
Of the gains made, some trait research is at the early discovery stages. This is impressive progress given the biological complexity of the photosynthesis traits - a complexity never before targeted for productivity gains.
However, IWYP program director Jefferson Gwyn says that the partnership is also preparing to hand over new traits to the IWYP Hub prior to delivery to breeders, seed companies and ultimately farmers.
The IWYP reported that new wheat yield traits and new genetics are currently being assembled in elite wheat lines in preparation for testing at dozens of field trials across the globe over the next few years.
Among the lead discoveries is confirmation of a positive correlation between plant biomass at flowering time and grain yield in spring wheat. This amounts to a new strategy to drive up yields using conventional selective breeding.
As applied by CIMMYT breeders, the approach has led to the development of germplasm that outperforms the previous best CIMMYT variety, the globally important Borlaug 100 variety. Of this germplasm, two lines have been selected for varietal release in the past two years in Pakistan - Borlaug-16 and Kohat-17.
Another lead discovery is the finding that radiation use efficiency (RUE) is highly correlated with grain yield. This finding can be used to increase the amount of carbon captured in the canopy and lift yields. Already, CSIRO's Dr Richard Richards has identified diversity in plant architecture traits that drive up RUE, with this trait capturing international attention (see issue 134).
"None of the progress reported this year would be possible without the dedication and passion of all of those involved in the IWYP initiative, especially the research scientists of the IWYP international science team," Jefferson Gwyn says.
In the coming months, the achievements of the Australian laboratories working to increase wheat yields will be covered as part of a special IWYP series of reports.
More information: Hugo Alonso-Cantabrana, firstname.lastname@example.org