Star Trek wheat, Star Wars wheat, and sweet wheat?
AgriPro hopes to revolutionize wheat varieties with beefed-up research
By Tracy Sayler
It is ironic that at a time when some producers are trying to find ways to
step away from wheat, one private seed company is diving right into it.
Declining wheat acreage, lower market prices that cut certified
seed sales, an abundance of public and private varieties on the market, and illegal seed sales ("brown-bagging") are all challenges private seed sellers face.
However, AgriPro is beefing up its research efforts on
wheat, after being acquired by Advanta. Advanta is the fifth largest seed company in the world, formed in 1996 as a joint venture of Zeneca and Cosun, a large European agricultural cooperative. Garst and
Interstate are other seed companies owned by Advanta.
Now with a stronger corporate footing, AgriPro made some bold moves within the last year: The company hired Rollie Sears and David Worrall, recognized as two of
the top public winter wheat breeders in the nation. Sears was a longtime wheat breeder at Kansas State University, and Worrall a longtime breeder at Texas A&M.
Agripro Wheat is now a separate business unit
of Advanta, with Worrall and Sears as co-managers of the wheat research program. Business manager Rob Bruns oversees a revamped regional marketing structure that has been developed, with more targeted and local
market decision-making. And research efforts have been significantly stepped up, with new investments in equipment, facilities, and personnel that Sears says will allow "more focused and accelerated research."
Sears says there are several key reasons why it is advantageous for AgriPro to build its wheat program. There are increasing opportunities for developing wheat varieties for specific market end-uses, and new
technologies are making it possible to meet that demand, he says. Further,
the current wheat seed market has a significant public breeding emphasis that cannot develop and market varieties with specific end-use traits as well as the private sector, which has few players.
"We have a real opportunity here to expand and improve," says Sears, who points out that Zeneca, one of AgriPro's corporate owners, has pledged a high-tech research concentration on
four major crops in the 21st Century: Soybeans, corn, rice, and wheat.
That research will involve both transgenic and conventional breeding approaches. "We are watching the GMO picture closely. Our company's
(varietal) releases will be responsive to the sensitivity of the markets," says Joe Smith, AgriPro Wheat's spring wheat breeder. "Traits obtained from
GMOs for our program are a little ways off. Hopefully, some of the dust will have settled by the time we are ready to go to market with them. In the mean time, there are plenty of non-GMO traits which can be
employed in our breeding programs."
Bob Knudson, the company's regional spring wheat business manager, says the company has several key goals it wants to accomplish within the next five years:
• To commercialize "solid, good quality scab-tolerant lines."
• The release of imidazolinone ("IMI")-tolerant spring wheat, the first genetically herbicide-tolerant wheat, to be released as early as 2001.
AgriPro is partnering with Cyanamid to market the seed technology under the "Clearfield" brand name. It will enable season-long, broad-spectrum annual and broadleaf weed control. The IMI-tolerant variety — being
developed through conventional breeding methods — is directly derived from Gunner. Mike Dietrich, Clearfield production specialist with Cyanamid based in Fargo, says that in 1999, less than 5 million acres of
IMI crops were grown worldwide. By 2006, IMI crops are expected to be grown on 60 million acres.
• A broadened product lineup in western and southern areas of the Northern Plains growing region.
• To establish "signature varieties" that are adopted quickly by growers, such as Grandin in North Dakota in the early 1990s, and 2375 in the Red River Valley as a response to the scab epidemics.
• Specialized varieties bred for certain end-use markets. To that end, AgriPro is already working with food processing companies such as ConAgra and General Mills, says Knudson. In another project, AgriPro
is collaborating with agricultural leaders in Texas about the possibility of using AgriPro wheat varieties to supply a new wheat mill, with producers of the varieties receiving a guaranteed floor price.
Worrall says AgriPro's short-term breeding goals continue to focus on "farmer-friendly wheats" that are high yielding with high quality, and good all-around pest tolerance. But there will also be greater emphasis on developing specialty varieties that can be grown in specific areas, or for specific uses.
Worrall says AgriPro is canvassing all the potential opportunities for developing wheat with specific quality attributes. For example, wheat varieties targeted at the Asian noodle market, or
used in the southern Plains as a forage resource. "We want wheat that offer premiums at all production points in the chain, from producer to end user."
He calls longer-term varietal breeding goals "Star Trek and Star Wars wheats."
"Star Trek wheat would be wheat that grows where no wheat has been
grown before," he says, or varieties adapted to extreme conditions, such as drought or salty soil conditions. "Star Wars wheat is using new technologies and new genes from non-related crops for non-traditional
end users. If you let your mind run a bit, as we find new products to make from wheat, why not a sweetener gene in wheat and selling wheat that way?"
Keep rust in mind when selecting wheat varieties for 2000
Keep the rust problem that was widespread during the 1999 growing
season in the Northern Plains in mind when selecting varieties for 2000, says Joe Smith, AgriPro's spring wheat breeder.
Some varieties performed better than others. Smith says Ivan, Norpro, Hamer, Lars, Russ, Verde, and Mercury are all varieties that performed fairly well under some of the worst
rust conditions in 20 years last year. Hagar, Nora, Gunner, Oxen, McVey, HJ98, and Dandy performed adequately in most cases. Varieties that performed poorly against rust pressure: AC Barrie, Ingot, Forge, Grandin,
and 2375. "Those are the varieties we need to be concerned about being susceptible to leaf rust," he says.
Smith says Zeneca is evaluating why its new herbicide Achieve stressed
some spring wheat varieties last year, including Gunner, AC Barrie, and Grandin. One possible reason may be root uptake of the herbicide due to a shallow root system.
Gunner, one of the most popular AgriPro varieties of late, generally did not perform as well in 1999 as it did in 1998. But that's not surprising,
says Smith, as other varieties will perform better than Gunner when scab is not a problem, and it's performance may have been adversely affected by
late planting and hot weather later in the growing season. Still, some of those negative factors were offset by the variety's high protein performance that helped growers take advantage of higher protein
premiums this year.
PVP remains seed sales concern
With weather as a factor, acreage in the North Dakota State Seed Department's certified seed program last year dropped from over 300,000 acres to about 220,000 acres. "That means the market for seed
production looks optimistic in ," says Jim Swanson, the department's seed regulatory supervisor.
Separately, with patent laws and propietary rights becoming more of an
issue in the seed industry because of transgenics, Swanson says seed regulatory changes are likely on the horizon as agencies sort out jurisdiction of genetically-enhanced seed. He says the U.S. government
position on transgenic seed seems to remain accepting; that it is no different than conventionally-developed seed. "The sentiment seems to be that we'll overcome resistance eventually, as long as traits are not
demonstrated to be harmful," he says.
Swanson says plant variety protection status remains an important seed sales issue: it is the responsibility of the buyer and/or the seller to confirm
the PVP status of a crop variety prior to a purchase or sale. The NDSSD has a list of protected varieties in its 2000 bulletin of certified seed
producers. PVP status information can also be obtained by contacting the department at 701-239-7210, or via the PVP website at www.ams.usda.gov/science/pvp.htmCWB gearing up for GMOs
About two-thirds of Canada's 1999 spring wheat crop will grade in the top two classes, which is about average, says Kevin McCallum, research
agronomist with Proven Seed Co. (a division of United Grain Growers) Morden, Man.
In 1998, close to 90% graded in the top two classes. Spring wheat yields
in Canada in 1999 averaged 36.7 bu/ac, with a 13.6% average protein. Rust was pervasive and there was some frost damage. Many farmers are viewing durum prices as a bit more promising than spring wheat going into
2000, so durum acreage may increase, he says.
According to a varietal survey of Canada's farmers, AC Barrie was grown on about 40% of Canada's spring wheat acreage in 1998, and
CDC Teal, about 14% of acreage, says McCallum. Kyle was planted on 71% of Canada's durum acreage. AC Elsa, with better rust tolerance, is
a spring wheat variety that is being touted as a replacement for AC Barrie. Other up-and-coming Canadian spring wheat varieties are McKenzie, a
good yielder albeit a tendency to lodge; and AC Intrepid, which has good leaf rust tolerance and is an early-maturing variety suitable for delayed seeding conditions and a shorter growing season.
Like the U.S., Canada's ag sector is watching the biotech issue closely. Even though transgenic wheat is still several years away yet in Canada, McCallum says the Canadian Wheat Board is trying to be proactive on
the issue, and is putting a $40 million system in place to segregate transgenic grain from nontransgenic.