This is certainly the case internationally where big investments are being made in wheat research, particularly breeding.
At the recent Foundation for Arable Research’s annual Crop day, Bill Angus, a UK-based independent wheat consultant and breeder, explained that huge agrichemical companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer Crop science and Dow are investing significant money in wheat research.
Ask Angus why and he simply says: “Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
You have 1.5 billion Chinese wanting to eat a western diet and this includes Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s and other fast-food outlets, he says. The same goes for India where 1.2 billion people are eating more wheat-based foods.
“The demand for wheat is huge.”
He adds that governments in these areas are supporting wheat research because keeping people fed aids political stability.
As greater restrictions are being placed on agrichemicals, particularly in the UK and Europe, agrichemical companies are struggling to get new chemistry registered. This is making them put more emphasis on breeding and genetics, which Angus believes is a good thing.
“We are seeing a better balance between chemistry and genetics and galvanising the technologies together.
“There has been seen to be conflict between genetics and chemistry, now breeding is complementary to the agrichemical business.
“It’s not about genetics and chemistry; it’s about the combination of the two.
Angus is welcoming this resurgence of interest in wheat.
He says people often grow wheat because it’s easy – “a child can do it”.
But growing good wheat is difficult because it requires attention to detail.
In the UK wheat prices have been underpinned by the EU, so bad growers have been able to get good returns. He believes this changing.
Angus has been visiting New Zealand for 35 years and he feels this country has the best environment for growing wheat due to the availability of irrigation, clear blue skies, and high light intensity.
“You can produce some very high yields and in the future you will see these yields increase because of the investment in breeding.”
He says NZ is in a good position to screen the best genetics from overseas, but he urges caution around what varieties are introduced to this country.
“You need to identify the best varieties for New Zealand.”
In the past there has been a simplistic view of taking a UK variety, sticking it in NZ, and “that’ll do”.
“Each variety needs to be treated in a different way. Ask what the pedigree is; understand what makes the variety in the first place.”
He urges farmers to think about how many varieties they grow on their farm, as often different varieties are from the same genetic background and may carry the same genetic resistance to chemicals.
“So if one goes they all go. You don’t want varieties that are ultra-susceptible in the northern hemisphere because sure as eggs they will become susceptible here as well.”
While genetics are one part of growing good-quality wheat, sensible agronomy is the other.
In the UK for example, growers are applying sulphur to their wheat crops for improved gluten content.
“If you want to grow good-quality wheat crops dig deep; ask the questions of your agronomists.”
Looking to the future, he believes hybrid wheat will be developed within 10 years and farmers will see greater consistency of performance in their wheat crops. He feels the 20t/ha wheat crop is entirely possible in NZ, because growers are able to get 15t crops out of Einstein, which is an old variety.
“Imagine what you can do with a new variety. It’s all about attention to detail.
“Cereals have been seen as the poor relation … we need them to be seen as specialist crops.”
He sees conservatism as being the greatest barrier to producing consistently high-quality and high-yielding wheat crops in this country.
“The biggest challenge you have is people not taking risks; we have intrinsically become risk-averse.
“But you’ve also got to be prepared to fail.”