The creation of drought resistant wheat is almost a mission impossible, according to one of Australia’s largest plant breeding companies.
Steve Jefferies, CEO of Australian Grain Technologies (AGT), said trying to create a drought proof wheat variety was very challenging and expensive.
He said it was hard to firstly define what drought is before you even start to tackle it.
“A UK farmer gets 10 tonnes per hectare that farmer thinks they’ve had a drought,” he said.
“Now in Western Australia, if you get two tonnes per hectare at Merredin, you think you’ve done exceptionally well.
“Is that a drought or is it not?”
Mr Jefferies said it was not only the different definitions of drought but also its timing which made it difficult to overcome.
“People will get a very dry period during the middle of the growing season and they’ll see their plants behave one way,” he said.
“Then they’ll get a different drought another year, that’s right at the end of the season and they’ll see their plants and varieties behave a different way.
“There are different genes acting in each of those growth phases that are different from each other.”
While Mr Jefferies still hoped a “drought proof” wheat would eventually be developed, he did not believe it would be found in one gene.
“I don’t think you can have one,” he said.
“To get drought adaptation there’s going to be many many [genes] and that’s why it hasn’t been solved.
“Ultimately I think it’s about finding an effect that works in a terminal drought at the end and another one here, another one there.
“It’s stacking them all together.”
Mr Jefferies said AGT had started looking at different genes which had the potential to help wheat cope with drought conditions and they’d also been investigating the affect of heat and wind on wheat.
“We’ve actually been able to replicate, in a controlled environment, what is actually happening in the field,” he said.
“Those southern Australian late October days with a stinking dry finish and a hot wind.
“We’re starting to see consistent genetic affects and we’re about to try and identify the genes of those.
“Once we’ve identified the genes we can increase the frequency of those positive genes in all of our breeding material.”
On the other end of the spectrum is frost.
Mr Jefferies said he had more hope of finding a “frost proof” variety in comparison to drought.
“We are reasonably optimistic,” he said.
“It’s a really hard trait to work on but we’re reasonable optimistic that we can make some progress through traditional genetics.
“Given that it is a fairly unique plant response we’re looking for I think it’s got potential for a GM [genetically modified] solution.”
Mr Jefferies said various universities and departments of agriculture are studying the affects of frost.
“They’re mining wild germ plasms; varieties from all over the world, and going to places like in the mountains of the middle east and Turkey, places like that where they are getting very cold temperatures during flowering,” he said.
“They have found some genetics to improve that.”
(Source – http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-23/drought-wheat-almost-mission-impossible/6792710)