The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

G20 countries launching initiative on wheat research


PARIS — The wheat research initiative that the agriculture ministers from the G20 countries launched at their meeting here on June 23 is strongly supported by U.S. growers and appears likely to put wheat research on a faster track.

Wheat is one of the most important foods in the world, but productivity has fallen behind other grains in recent years.

France is one of the premier wheat producers, and the French government, which holds the G20 presidency, proposed a special wheat research initiative when agriculture ministers met in Paris to address global food security.

The ministers agreed to launch the International Research Initiative for Wheat Improvement, bridging national research programs and the program coordinated by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico (known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT), where the late Norman Borlaug developed the wheat that was used in the Green Revolution in Asia.

The G20 action plan did not give specifics of the financing of the research to be conducted. The National Association of Wheat Growers and other industry groups wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier this year that the effort would include an International Wheat Coordination Committee that would seek $50 million for sequencing of the wheat genome, but a wheat industry official said Friday that it appears unlikely countries will contribute that much money. The committee also would support the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) wheat research programs.

“There is a strong link between wheat research and global food security,” the wheat groups said. “Now is a critical time for coordinating and enhancing global wheat research resources so production can meet increased demands in the face of evolving production constraints from insect, disease and weather-related threats.”

The research is needed, the groups said, because wheat provides 20 percent of all food calories globally, is a complex crop with a genome that is many times larger than the corn, soybean and even the human genome, and has experienced significantly slower yield growth than corn and soybeans because of less access to technology and enhanced breeding tools.

Globally, wheat production increases are not keeping up with demand increases, the groups said.

The G20 wheat research initiative will not focus on genetic modification, which has been used to improve corn and soybeans but has proven more controversial with wheat because it is used mostly for foods directly consumed by humans rather than for feed grains. Private companies are engaged in GMO wheat research.

The G20 set out an ambitious schedule for decision making on wheat:
  • September 5-9: The International Research Initiative for Wheat Improvement (IRIWI) will be presented to the wheat scientific community during the 2011 International Triticeae Mapping Initiative Workshop in Mexico.
  • September 12-13: The first G20 conference on agricultural research for development will be held in Montpellier, France.
  • September 15: A high-level meeting bringing together international wheat scientific leaders, CEOs of major G20 countries and international research organizations and representatives of the G20 countries will be organized in Paris to implement the first steps of the IRIWI.
  • October: A G20 seminar on agricultural productivity is being planned.

According to the action plan, the goals for the wheat research project are:
  • Cooperate in world-wide bread and durum wheat improvement research efforts in the field of genomics, genetics and agronomy, to increase food security, wheat nutritional value and safety while taking into account societal demands for sustainable and resilient agricultural production systems;
  • Provide a forum to identify synergies and encourage collaborations among major nationally, regionally and internationally (public and private) funded wheat programs with the result of maximizing opportunities for gaining added-value internationally;
  • Facilitate open communication and exchange of germplasm, data and materials in accordance with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) and facilitate exchange of ideas within the wheat research community;
  • Support the development of publicly available integrated databases and platforms;
  • Recommend minimum data-reporting standards and develop protocols to allow consistency for screening and analyses;
  • Organize knowledge transfer and capacity building;
  • Monitor and summarize progress of scientific activities;
  • Establish and periodically update priorities for wheat research of global relevance;
  • Communicate to national and international funding agencies as well as to agricultural ministries the needs of the wheat research community of participating nations.

INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique), BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) and CIMMYT will coordinate activities of the International Wheat Research Coordination Committee for the first four years of the project. Over this initial period, sustainable funding mechanisms will be created through engagement of research and funding organizations in the public and private sector, on a voluntary basis.

The groups intend that the IRIWI will pave the way to similar initiatives for other crops such as rice, maize, millet, sorghum, root crops, barley and legumes.