A $25 million grant for wheat and barley genetics research will help agronomists develop varieties suited for a warmer world with more mouths to feed.
Headed by the University of California, Davis, the grant will allow 55 researchers, plant breeders and educators across 21 states to examine how evolving wheat and barley varieties -- which use similar technologies in breeding labs -- respond to biotic (pests and diseases) and abiotic (floods and droughts) stresses.
But the biggest stress, according to UC Davis researcher and project head Jorge Dubcovsky, is the extra 2.3 billion people living on Earth in 50 years.
"Even if we don't have a huge impact on climate change, we still have a problem of population growth," said Dubcovsky. "We still need to produce food with less water, less nitrogen."
While climate change is urgent, Dubcovsky thinks population growth will hit earlier.
The five-year project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, a fund that will continue to grant awards to help agricultural researchers find ways to adapt crops to climate change.
Likelihood of more crop failures
"Higher temperatures result in changes in geographic distribution of pathogens and altered precipitation patterns [and] increase the likelihood of short-term crop failures and long-term production declines," said Jennifer Martin, a public affairs specialist with USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
"These constraints, compounded by increasing demand for food and increasing costs for fertilizer, water and other inputs, require a national breeding strategy that capitalizes on innovations in plant breeding."
One-fifth of the world's calories comes from wheat, said Dubcovsky, and the amount is rising. Consequently, the United States -- the world's third-largest producer -- is planting 15 percent less wheat than it did two years ago, according to recent USDA figures.
Dubcovsky's team has a solid record in the field. In 2006, it discovered a gene that regulated the balance of nitrogen between the leaf and the wheat germ. By manipulating the gene, the team was able to produce a wheat variety with 10 percent more protein content.
The poor man's grain
This kind of research could lead to varieties that need less nitrogen to grow, a concern to growers, as increasing carbon dioxide concentration affects nitrogen assimilation in plants.
"We know that rye is more efficient in taking water from soil, much more tolerant to drought than wheat," he added, demonstrating another application of prior research.
While it is a utilitarian grain, wheat is no luxury item. The rate of return on investment for research in wheat ranges from 16 to 54 percent.
In comparison, rice can yield up to a 285 percent return.
"Seventy-eight percent of varieties are produced by the public system," said Dubcovsky, as opposed to private agribusiness research, "because it's difficult to make money."
Funding for wheat research is an investment in food security, he added, and therein lies the need for grants and initiatives.
One-third of the grant will be reserved for recruiting and training new plant breeders to implement the new technologies.