Demand is growing

More than three billion people depend on wheat and demand is growing for more nutritious, resilient and sustainable varieties.

Wheat is almost older than farming itself. The three ancestral grass species were flourishing long before modern humans evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago, and they had already started to share their genes by the time agriculture's earliest farmers, in the eastern Mediterranean from 10,000 BC, began to help them along through selective cultivation in an effort to find hardier and more productive varieties.

Old basket making
Fast forward to the early 21st century and the evolution of “The Field Scanalyzer”, an extraordinary automaton that spies on crops 24/7 to identify the best, from the moment a new seed enters the ground to when the cereal is ready for harvesting. The device consists of a high-level observation gantry rolling on a pair of rails that sit either side of a long, experimental stretch of land.

Potential new varieties

Sown into the soil are hundreds of different lines, rows or blocks of potentially new varieties of wheat. The gantry's digital array of infrared and visible cameras, laser scanners and sensors provide continuous data on the health and performance of the growing crops. They track features that could help to pinpoint genetic traits to aid development of more efficient, sustainable strains. And the equipment can scan as many as 10,000 different plots per year.

The Scanalyzer is one of many hard and soft tools being used to speed evolution of a new generation of wheat varieties at Rothamsted Research, which has been investigating the cereal for more than 170 years to improve yield and, more recently, to increase nutritional value and to enhance sustainability. The work draws on expertise in genetic modification, nitrogen fixation, acrylamide chemistry and disease control.

Pressure to find solutions is intense

Global demand for wheat has been incessant and growing since its earliest cultivation, and is expected to increase 60% by 2050. Wheat is the most widely cultivated cereal in the world, the staple food for around 3 billion people of whom more than a third are among the poorest, and it provides about one fifth of the calories and protein of the human diet. Economic and reliable wheat production is essential for the world's food security and political stability.

From 2012, the institute's focus in this field had been on its 20:20 Wheat Programme, with the aim of more than doubling yield in the UK to 20 tonnes per hectare in 20 years. Results will also benefit global production, whose yields currently average 3t/ha. Since the programme's first five-year phase concluded, its work has been incorporated into a new, all-encompassing five-year strategic programme.

Designing future wheat

Designing Future Wheat (DFW) integrates wheat research from across the UK into one force that maps directly onto international priorities agreed in the G20 Strategic Research Agenda of 2015. The priorities cover five main areas: yield potential; nutrient use efficiency; quality and safety of wheat; disease and pest control; and wheat information systems and exploiting genetic resources. The objectives are ambitious, and need to be so.

Designing future wheat