Breeding wheat for a warmer future

Scientists are making progress in helping millions of wheat farmers adapt to hotter conditions, but the gains have been uneven, reports a new study led by Stanford University. New approaches to breeding are needed to withstand increasingly common heat waves and keep pace with growing global food demand.

Wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world; unfortunately it is also one of the most sensitive to future global warming. Scientists around the world strive to develop new wheat varieties each year that incorporate improved features, much like car companies release new models each year. Different strategies are commonly used; some target fully irrigated conditions that favor very high yields, while others focus on dry and hot conditions where yield maintenance under stress is a priority.

The team, which includes scientists from Stanford and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known as CIMMYT), evaluated 25 years of data from historical trials around the globe and analyzed the outcome of different past breeding approaches to help prioritize future strategies. The fully irrigated nursery, known as the elite spring wheat yield trials, produces varieties that are released for the majority of wheat farmers in countries like India and Egypt each year. While cultivars selected under stressed conditions showed significant yield progress at higher temperatures, the elite trials did not.

“There has been very impressive progress in improving yields for the elite varieties at the cooler temperatures that wheat prefers,” explains lead author Sharon Gourdji, a post-doctoral scholar in Stanford’s department of Environmental Earth System Science and Center on Food Security and the Environment (FSE).

“However, to date, our analysis shows a lack of yield gains for these varieties in hot environments over the past 25 years. Along with the gains in cool conditions, this means that the yield difference between cool and hot conditions is getting larger.”

A CIMMYT researcher plants wheat seed in pots in the center's greenhouse facilities. Photo credit: X. Fonseca/CIMMYT

"I think we have learned that the current main approach to breeding won't quite cut it in terms of adapting wheat to climate change,” said co-author David Lobell, assistant professor in Environmental Earth System Science and FSE center fellow. “That is useful information as breeding centers try to raise their game to contend with long-term warming."

Lobell notes that there are good reasons why improved heat tolerance for the elite varieties has not happened naturally.

“Breeding is tough since scientists are aiming for so many traits at once – for example, disease resistance, high yields, and good quality for bread making. Adding heat tolerance is like telling a scout looking for a superstar athlete, ‘by the way, make sure he’s a straight A student’,” said Lobell.

One important lesson from the study is that sifting through historical data can help identify what works and what does not.

“It can often be a hard sell to have breeders take the time to send their data back once they have selected their varieties and moved on,” explains CIMMYT wheat physiologist and co-author Matthew Reynolds. “This study clearly demonstrates the advantage of having these data to assess progress. It shows the genetic potential of wheat to adapt to warmer-than-usual conditions, and reinforces the value of screening under stress as a strategy for adaptation to climate change.”

The progress in the nursery targeted towards stress conditions shows that it is possible to make sizable gains in improving heat tolerance. But whether this can be combined with continued high performance under cooler conditions remains to be seen.

“It is critically important for farmers that they not only survive the bad or hot years, but that they can take full advantage of the favorable years” says Gourdji. “What is needed is a breeding strategy that can successfully achieve both.”

This work was supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Additional co-authors of the study include CIMMYT’s Ky Mathews and Jose Crossa.