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Disruptions in world trade markets as a result of the war in Ukraine, among other causes, have focused public attention on the issue of ensuring a sufficient supply of high-quality food for the world’s population. Researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) are looking for modern methods to boost global harvests and ensure global food security. Wheat plays a special role in these efforts.

In terms of farmland, wheat is one of the most important cereal varieties and plays an important role as a staple food. It is grown in more than a hundred countries. However, the supply of wheat is inadequate and many developing and emerging countries are highly dependent on imports. Senthold Asseng, Professor of Digital Agriculture at TUM, has been working with international research teams to study scenarios and models that could lead the way out of the wheat crisis.

The wheat crisis threatens food security and world peace

Price fluctuations in world markets and in crops have a major impact on the nutritional status of many people around the world. These supply bottlenecks have negative effects on the quality of life of the population that can undermine social stability.

“The current global wheat crisis shows how important wheat is to the world. In many countries, food security is linked to national security, civil unrest, migration and even war,” says Professor Asseng, Director of the Center for Global Farming Systems-Hans Eisenmann Forum for Agricultural Sciences at TUM in Weihenstephan. “Wheat yields are stagnating in many parts of the world. Especially with the global population increasing, steady increases in yields will be needed in the coming decades to ensure global food needs,” Asseng warns.

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Prof. Asseng is working intensively on potential increases in wheat yields. As a scientist, his work is not limited to calculations and theoretical models. His research also engages directly with nature through field experiments, including work with regional varieties of wheat.

“We are approaching the biophysical limits of wheat yields. Therefore, we must understand the functions of crops to further increase yields”, says the scientist. He strongly believes that the genetic resources of wheat are considerable. In his experiments, he has identified the unused genetic resources in this cultivated plant with the potential to increase yields around the world. He speaks of a genetic yield gap of 51%. The objective is to mobilize this reproduction gap. This can be achieved through selective breeding that will utilize the yield potential of the wheat and thus lead to larger harvests.

Genetics is important, but only an interdisciplinary approach will achieve the goal

Prof. Asseng is sure: “Genetics alone cannot solve global nutrition problems. We can only achieve this with an interdisciplinary approach through the application of genetics combined with soil and climate science as well as cultivated plant research.

The use of modern and advanced breeding tools and the continuous improvement of agricultural crop production through optimized plant and soil management will achieve urgently needed increases in the global wheat harvest. This can lead to an effective solution for an adequate world food supply in the future.

More information:

Nimai Senapati et al, Global Wheat Production Could Benefit from Closing Genetic Yield Gap, Nature Food (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s43016-022-00540-9

Matthew Paul Reynolds et al, A Wiring Diagram for Integrating Physiological Traits of Wheat Yield Potential, Nature Food (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s43016-022-00512-z

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Technical University of Munich

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