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Supplying the world’s daily bread: Wheat Facts and Futures

CIMMYT E-News, vol 6 no. 4, June 2009

cover_whtfacts09Increasing at only 0.9% each year, wheat production is lagging behind the demands of a global population that grows 1.5% or more annually. Recent price spikes, local grain shortages, and associated civil unrest show the dangers of complacency regarding supplies of key food crops like wheat. A major new publication from CIMMYT describes present and future constraints to wheat yield, and how resilient, high-yield varieties and resource-conserving cropping practices can be developed to help farmers supply tomorrow’s daily bread.
With little additional arable land left, economists estimate that wheat yields need to rise 1.6% each year to reach required production levels for the crop in 2020. “Agriculture is the foundation of rural development and economic growth in many countries,” says Hans-Joachim Braun, director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program. “Wheat in particular provides 500 kilocalories of food energy per capita per day in the world’s most populous countries, China and India, and over 1,400 kilocalories per person each day-about two-thirds of a person’s daily calorie intake-in countries like Iran and Turkey. Restoring productivity growth in major wheat-producing areas around the globe is crucial.”

The latest in a series of periodic assessments of wheat research and development-particularly for developing countries-a new publication from CIMMYT, Wheat Facts and Futures 2009, lays out in relevant detail key issues and trends in wheat-based agriculture.

jun04To meet the world’s wheat demand, future priorities for breeding and related sciences will include yield, but will also diversify in response to changing market demands and farming environments, particularly in developing countries. Wheat quality characteristics, for example, will become increasingly important. Plant breeders will also apply DNA markers and tools from molecular biology to advance more quickly and effectively on yield, drought tolerance, grain quality, and other desirable traits. “These and other technologies will be essential, as scientists and policymakers will have to contend with increased heat stress and variability stemming from climate change,” explains Braun. Wheat areas in northern latitudes are expected to grow warmer and more humid, but the tropics and subtropics will suffer increasingly from heat stress and drought. “Sustainable production systems based on the principles of conservation agriculture are also needed to reverse the current, serious degradation of agricultural resources,” he says. “Finally, farmers, commerce, science, and policy must somehow be linked to benefit everyone.”

The new ‘Wheat Facts and Futures 2009‘ constitutes a global call to action for the international wheat breeding system, according to Braun. “Our work once underpinned strong growth in wheat yields worldwide, creating a Green Revolution. Now we must respond again.”

Braun also says that, to achieve the above, investments in global wheat research will have to increase dramatically: “Adjusted for inflation, CIMMYT’s budget for wheat research was three times more in 1980 than in 2007, due to donors cutting funding. I don’t think the challenges we face have diminished three-fold since then.”

For more information: Hans-Joachim Braun, director, Global Wheat Program (h-j.braun@cgiar.org)