ETH Zürich, Institut für Agrarwissenschaften, 8092 Zürich, Schweiz

The future of wheat breeding

Unlike the situation in the European Union, where wheat breeding is almost exclusively in the hands of the private sector, public breeding of disease-resistant wheat with high baking quality has a long-standing tradition in Switzerland. Important increases in yield potential are still possible here. After World War I, wheat yield in other European countries increased rapidly due to a focus on mass production and a demand for high baking quality. The current annual breeding progress in mass-produced wheat remains at 1 %, and large investments would be necessary to raise this rate to the 2.5 % required for global food security. However, investment does not pay back when seed rotation is reduced to 50 % as it is the case in some countries. Therefore, significant yield leaps cannot be expected in the near future. As the harvest index—the driving trait of the Green Revolution—is close to its theoretical maximum above 50 % and thus no longer drives progress, smart-breeding may allow fast and precise breeding. Smartbreeding combines cheap and efficient molecular tools with new phenotyping techniques to produce novel varieties, such as hexaploid bread wheat. The theoretical possibility of doubling the photosynthetic efficiency is a silver line at the horizon, but it demands fundamental changes to an age-old breeding system. In the face of climate change and ongoing globalization, the reasonable use of new breeding tools will help us develop new productive wheat varieties that are tolerant to rapid changes from hot to cold or flooding to drought and are resistant to pests and diseases.

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