Wheat constitutes 20% of all calories and protein consumed, making it a cornerstone of the human diet, according to the United Nations. However, hotter and drier weather, driven by a changing climate, threatens the global wheat supply.
To address this threat, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research awarded a $5 million grant to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center to develop climate-resilient wheat. The center leads global research programs on maize and wheat, sustainable crop systems and policies to improve farmers’ livelihoods. These activities have driven major gains in wheat variety improvement across the globe for decades; in the U.S. alone, for example, more than 50% of wheat acreage is sown with center-related varieties.
Wheat is among the most widely grown cereal crops in the world and the third-largest crop grown in the U.S. by acre. Nearly all U.S. wheat crops are improved and supported by public agriculture research. As most wheat in the U.S. is dependent on rainfall and has no access to irrigation, this research is critical for helping the plants — and producers — weather climate changes including extreme heat and drought. Additionally, the demand for wheat is expected to rise in the coming years — as much as 60% by 2050. Without public research, wheat production could decrease by nearly 30% over the same period because of extreme climate conditions.
“FFAR leverages public agriculture research funding through public-private partnerships to pioneer actionable research,” says FFAR’s Executive Director Sally Rockey. “With temperatures on the rise and water becoming scarcer, we are committed to supporting wheat farmers and providing new wheat varieties designed with future environmental challenges in mind.”
Using the FFAR grant, researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center are pioneering wheat breeding technologies to produce heat-tolerant, drought-resistant and climate-resilient wheat.
The center’s researchers and collaborators are applying cutting-edge approaches in genomics, remote sensing and big data analysis to develop new breeding technologies. A key intervention will explore the vast and underused reserve of wheat genetic resources to fortify the crop against current and future climate-related stresses.
“This project will help bridge a longstanding gap between state-of-the-art technological findings and crop improvement to deliver climate-resilient wheat to farmers as quickly as possible,” says Matthew Reynolds, head of wheat physiology at the center and principal investigator for the project.
Breakthroughs from the FFAR-funded project will reach growers via the International Wheat Improvement Network that supplies new wheat lines to public and private breeding programs worldwide, and has boosted productivity and livelihoods for wheat farmers for over half a century, especially in the global south.
The research and breeding supported by FFAR will be conducted under the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium, a project led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in partnership with experts around the globe, designed to ensure wheat’s long-term climate resilience. Under the umbrella of the Wheat Initiative’s Ahead unit, the most relevant advances in academia will be channeled to the consortium to help further boost impacts.
“‘Heat,’ ‘drought’ and ‘wheat’ are three of the most important words for billions of people,” says the center’s Interim Deputy Director for Research Kevin Pixley. “This partnership between the center and FFAR will help ensure that the best agricultural science is applied to sustainably raise production of one of the world’s most important staple crops, despite unprecedented challenges.”
Center Director General Martin Kropff says, “This project represents not only a breakthrough to develop wheat for the future, but also an emerging partnership between the center and FFAR. I look forward to a productive collaboration that will move us all closer to our mission of maize and wheat science for improved livelihoods.”
FFAR’s investment was matched by a $4.5 million contribution from the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, as well as a $7.5 million contribution from Accelerating Genetic Gains for Maize and Wheat, which is jointly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, for a total $17 million investment to advance wheat breeding research.