U. S. wheat farmers get no significant premium for producing higher quality wheat and have to balance quality factors with yield, disease resistance, and other production factors when they choose varieties.
But internationally, quality is valued higher and may become more important to U.S. growers as they compete for export markets.
“The United States is one of the high quality wheat producers in the world and that gives us a competitive advantage,” said Allan Fritz, a Kansas State University wheat breeder speaking at the recent Big Country Wheat Conference in Abilene, Texas.
“Quality is sometimes hard to define,” Fritz said, “and depends on the end use and even the baker. Currently, protein is a major issue.”
He said no one variety includes all the quality features bakers look for and that factors such as weather also affect milling and baking characteristics.
Wheat breeders are using “wheat from around the world in breeding programs. We have a broad genetic base. Currently, we are working on heat and drought tolerance but universally quality is viewed as an important goal for wheat breeding.”
Inadequate early screening
He said breeding efforts attempt to eliminate low quality performers early in yield trials. “We want to maintain good pan bread quality and enhance health characteristics such as antioxidants.”
Breeders typically get to yield trails before they do any significant quality testing. “We have inadequate screening for quality early in the process,” Fritz said. “It takes 10 to 12 years to develop a new variety.”
Biotechnology may streamline the process a bit. DNA markers, for instance, show breeders where certain characteristics are located. “We have markers available for some key traits.”
Herbicide resistance may be close, as well. “Commercially viable cultivars with herbicide resistance are available but have not been released,” Fritz said. Other targets include disease resistance and stress tolerance.
“We’ve come a long way in the last eight years.”
Acceptance an issue
Acceptance remains a key issue, but Fritz said that has changed significantly over the past few years. “Domestically, public acceptance is no longer a serious concern. Resistance in foreign markets is declining but still significant.”
He said current standards call for zero tolerance for GMO wheat in the marketplace. “We must establish a realistic tolerance level before we can release (GMO wheat). Safeguards and regulations will be crucial. And politics has to catch up with science.”
For wheat to be competitive with other crops, he said, breeders must take advance of available technology.