Better Wheat Through Science?

The world could face a crisis in wheat production unless agricultural scientists learn how to breed better varieties of wheat, warns a new report from a leading international agricultural research center.

Wheat is fast overtaking rice as the developing world's top cereal crop. But gains in average wheat yields have dropped from as much as 100% a year during the Green Revolution of the 1960s to about 1% a year today, says the report's lead author, plant physiologist Matt Reynolds of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico. Because demand for wheat is growing faster than increases in production--the world's population is rising 2.5% each year--agricultural scientists have been trying to devise new strategies for improving wheat yields.

One strategy detailed in the report is for scientists to search more widely--especially in the former Soviet Union--for plants with genes that could improve wheat varieties, including related wild grasses. Another strategy is to better screen offspring of crossbreeding by using infrared temperature measurements, genetic tests, and data exchanges among research centers.

Agricultural specialist David Pimentel of Cornell University lauds the report's goals, but cautions that the fantastic gains of the Green Revolution probably won't ever be achieved again. Making progress toward better yields, he says, ``is going to be slow.''