US farmers are gaining access to a new type of wheat developed by agrichemical giant Syngenta without genetic engineering, as the world's biggest seedmakers seek to boost yields amid dwindling supplies of grain.
Chinese-owned Syngenta is releasing hybrid wheat on 5,000 to 7,000 acres next year, a small fraction of total US plantings, while BASF SE and Bayer AG are planning their own launches of hybrid wheat by the end of the decade.
HOW IS HYBRID WHEAT GROWN?
Crop breeders develop hybrid wheat by taking away the natural ability of plants to pollinate themselves. Instead, female wheat plants in a field are pollinated by male plants of a different line, with the goal of producing seeds that carry stronger yield potential and adaptability to adverse environments than either parent. The fertilised female plant produces new, unique offspring called a hybrid.
The use of this hybrid technology allows breeders to choose the best traits from two parent seeds to produce offspring that contain the positive characteristics of both, with yields increasing through a phenomenon known as hybrid vigor.
When seed companies produce hybrid wheat seeds, some female plants ultimately fail to become fertilised because they rely on unpredictable winds to carry pollen, producers said. Fertilisation of each plant is more certain during wheat's natural process of self pollination, they said.
HOW WIDESPREAD ARE HYBRID CROPS?
Farmers have grown hybrid corn since the 1930s, and it has improved yields by increasing the plant's resistance to pests and diseases. Vegetables, including onions, spinach and tomatoes, are also grown from hybrid seeds.
Seed companies said they used their experience launching hybrid corn and barley to develop hybrid wheat. Average corn yields climbed by 600% from 1930 to the mid-1990s, aided partly by hybridisation, while wheat saw a 2.5-fold increase, the US Department of Agriculture said.
Hybrid wheat has taken longer to come to market because the development process is more expensive and complicated, researchers said. It could be key to boosting wheat output while avoiding the "GMO" label.
Genetically modified (GM) varieties of corn and soy, used for animal feed, biofuels and ingredients like cooking oil, were introduced in 1996 and soon came to dominate plantings in the United States, as well as Brazil and Argentina, the world's top suppliers. Genetically modified wheat has never been grown for commercial purposes due to consumer fears that allergens or toxicities could emerge in a staple used worldwide for bread, pasta and pastries.
"Because of the resistance to genetically modifying stuff, hybrids would be considered better and safer," said Dave Hankey, owner of Hankey Seed Company in Park River, North Dakota. "That would certainly be the public perception."
WHAT MAY BE THE BENEFITS OF HYBRID WHEAT?
Argentine biotech company Bioceres is developing wheat genetically modified to better tolerate drought - betting consumer resistance to GMOs will fade as climate change makes growing conventional crops increasingly more difficult. Larger companies are working to tailor hybrid wheat to certain geographic areas.
For example, in the US Central Plains, where farmers grow hard red winter wheat used to make bread, BASF said its hybrid wheat will focus on resisting a yield-robbing disease called Fusarium head blight. In northern Plains states like North Dakota, the company is targeting hybrids of high-protein hard red spring wheat, used to make pizza crusts and croissants, that have qualities suited for milling and baking.
"Developing hybrid wheat is very demanding from a technical perspective," said Peter Eckes, president of research and development for BASF Agricultural Solutions. "Recent advancements in genetics and breeding technologies have enabled mastering this challenge."