Wheat is an important part of almost everyone’s diet, rich or poor, making up 20% of the calories and protein consumed by humans worldwide. In many less-developed countries, wheat is the main source of calories and a nutritious and reliable source of protein.
As the world experiences higher temperatures, increasing droughts and more extreme weather conditions with climate change, the need for more resilient wheat is critical to protect and improve yield gains. Wheat crop losses due to heat and drought affect both food availability and cost for billions of consumers around the world.
Because wheat is a staple food for so many, if wheat production falters in one country due to heat or drought, it affects food prices and food security regionally and globally.
Figure 6: Historical and future projected grain yield for wheat. Historical data from the previous 30 years were used. A similar yield trend was observed with 60 previous years of data (Wulff and Dhugga, 2018). The average annual yield increase over the last 30 years has been 38 kg ha−1 year−1. Extrapolation with the current annual rate of gain to 2050 leads to 4.6 t ha−1 grain yield, which is an increase of a little over 30% above the 2020 level of 3.5 t ha−1 (black). Projected need (green) from a growing and increasingly affluent population is ~1.3 billion Mt by 2050 (Ray et al., 2013), which, in order to be met, requires an annual rate of gain of 80 kg ha−1 year−1 for a yield of 5.9 t ha−1. Updated data (13 August 2020) for wheat production were downloaded from United States Department of Agriculture–Economic Research Service site (https://www.ers.usda.gov/ data-products/wheat-data/). Figure and legend reprinted from Reynolds et al., 2021 under license CC-BY.
We now have the tools necessary to build more resilient wheat faster. HeDWIC capitalizes on decades of research in plant stress as well as the emergence of new technologies to advance the frontier of breeding.
For example, wheat researchers have identified biological mechanisms that enable the crop to cool itself under heat stress, root systems that mine deep water under drought, and wild relatives that can withstand very high temperatures.
With advancements in high-speed computing, remote sensing, and genomic technologies, we can, for the first time, apply this knowledge to develop new climate-resilient wheat varieties.