Sometime in the next few weeks, a big winter storm will roll across the Midwest. Local television weather forecasters will sound the alert and gleefully predict slick roads, blowing and drifting snow, and freezing temperatures. And what will most of us do? Run to the store and buy bread and milk. Frankly I never quite understood why, when faced with the possibility of being stuck a home for a day or two, people cannot stand the chance of running out of bread. For some reason, bread touches a deep emotional chord in our psyche. Bread represents comfort and security. Perhaps it is a throwback to our ancient ancestors before Twinkies and pizza delivery. For whatever reason, bread holds a very unique position in the diet of the civilized world.
Bread also holds a very important position in most of the developing world as well. The wheat that makes bread is one of the most significant crops on the planet, accounting for 20% of the calories consumed by people. Fully 35% of the world’s 7 billion people depend on this staple crop for survival. According to the National Association of Wheat Growers, wheat originated in the cradle of civilization in the Tigris and Euphrates river valley, near what is now Iraq. About 8,000 years ago, man began domesticating bread wheat by the hybridization between cultivated wheat (T. dicoccoides) and goat grass (Aegilops tauschii). Over the centuries, the crop has been crossed and bred to fit a variety of climates and soil types around the world. NAWG states wheat was brought to the US in 1777 as a hobby crop and is now grown in 42 states. A new scientific breakthrough involving bread wheat may give this ancient crop a new future and may drastically impact the world’s food supply.
A group of researchers working in the US, the UK, and Germany have sequenced the bread wheat genome. The bread what genome is incredibly complex with 5 times the amount of DNA as the human genome. Using new technology, the researchers were able to unravel the complexity and identify the bread wheat genes that control the productivity, nutrition, and growth cycle of the plant. This will allow breeders to reinvent bread wheat to improve its yield, nutrients, and adaptability to different regions of the world.
Wheat today is a very productive crop. An acre will produce about 40 bushels of wheat, and a bushel of wheat yields 42 one-and-a-half pound commercial loaves of white bread or about 90 one-pound loaves of whole wheat bread. But wheat yields have reached a plateau in recent years, and the yield numbers are far lower in many developing nations where modern farming practices are not available. Yet, biotechnology may now be able to radically change that.
Yes, this is biotechnology folks; and the improvements in wheat yields and nutrition would make them GMOs. This will send the biotechnophobes into a frenzy of self-righteous indignation. They will insist we study this for a century or two and, of course, deny this technology to poor nations thus condemning them to perpetual starvation and subsistence farming. As the world’s population grows and food demands increase, it will be the unlocking of the genomes of major agricultural crops that holds the key to meeting our future food needs.
“The sequencing and analysis in this study provides a framework with which this crop can now be improved,” said W. Richard McCombie, one of the leaders of the research team. Improvements in bread wheat and other crops are the key to world food security. We are quickly developing the technology and techniques that will improve the quantity and quality of the food agriculture produces, both here at home and around the world. Yet, there are those who want to put a stop to these advances and to deny a better life to billions of people around the world.
By Gary Truitt