IT WAS heartening to travel the world and see the level of private investment going into grain breeding.
State of the art facilities in both Europe and North America are dedicated to crop improvement.
However, from an Australian perspective, its disappointing to see the lack of focus of wheat.
Through the US corn / soybean rotations are king, and research work from the private sector certainly focuses on this.
In Canada, canola is currently the big money maker, and the research dollars are flowing there.
Even in Europe, breeders such as Limagrain dedicate a lot of their time and energy to work on maize.
The obvious argument is that it is driven by a desire for biotechnology and that biotech is more advanced in corn and soybeans, but this is a little simplistic.
The vast majority of work Limagrain do in Europe is on conventional lines.
I’d suggest its more that there is still so much low-hanging fruit to be gained from corn and soybean work.
Corn productivity increases directly from genetics are still improving at a fantastic rate of 3pc in many parts of the world, which compares very favourably to wheat, which has stagnated at a little less than a percent in Australia in recent years.
It’s not from lack of effort, its just that wheat is a very complex plant, and there has been sustained work on breeding for many years now.
However, what is good to hear is that wheat is back on the radar of the big breeders.
Obviously, the chance for biotech varieties is the headline act here and a key reason behind it, but the big private breeders also acknowledge market sentiment and the need for non-GM lines.
It will be fantastic to see more private research dollars going in to help the wonderful work done by organisations such as CIMMY and ICARDA.
While these two organisations are churning out some wonderful germplasm that is having fantastic results, especially in the 3rd World, they are still minnows in terms of funding.
“Monsanto spend more on a month on their research than is spent in an entire year across the globe on wheat,” said CIMMYT’s David Bonnett.
It certainly puts it all in perspective.
However, Australian farmers will have to change their culture.
Throughout North America there’s a strong emphasis on hybrids. The companies will tell you its because of the hybrid vigour, but upon pressing, they reveal the fact farmers need to buy seed every year is probably not a bad thing for them either!
Australian farmers, with their focus on wheat, have been happy to rely on stored seed. While farmers might kick up about issues such as plant breeding rights and end point royalties, the bottom line is that if there is not an incentive for companies to get involved here, they won’t. The companies are blunt about the fact there needs to be a reward for them too – and this means that the culture of ‘brown bagging’ seed needs to stop if we are to get the investment we need.
Agriculture is booming globally right now and its right on the radar for many big businesses. There’s a lot of great work being done in Australia now, through both the private companies and organisations such as GRDC, however, we have to ensure we provide an attractive environment for overseas investors to come in. That’s what’s going to lead to more money, and hopefully, more cracking wheat varieties hitting the market sooner rather than later.