A ground-breaking research study focused on improving wheat yield has revealed global production is only half of what it could be.
The research was led by the UK's Rothamsted Research and included Professor Mark Cooper of Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI).
It also involved leading wheat experts from Denmark, France, Germany, The Netherlands and Mexico.
The paper, which was published last week, revealed the wheat yield could be improved substantially in every region of the world, if new techniques were adapted, without having to use more land.
The researchers found that utilising genetic variations, advanced breeding tools and improvements in soil and crop management, it could close the 'genetic yield gap'.
Global wheat production has been vastly impacted this year, with key northern hemisphere regions impacted by drought, along with the disruptions as a result of the Ukraine conflict.
Current global harvests are in the region of 750 million tonnes.
QAAFI's Centre for Crop Science professor Mark Cooper said the research used a crop model to evaluate ways of increasing the wheat yield through targeted breeding and selection for novel trait combinations.
"A range of opportunities were identified that varied with global geography," Professor Cooper said.
"That included developing wheat varieties tailored to each region.
"The research team used data on the contribution of different genes to individual plant traits such as size, shape, metabolism and growth, running millions of computer simulations to design 'perfect' wheat plants."
Professor Cooper's involvement in the study began in the early 2020, but he said the Rothamsted research team began studying the idea in the early 2010s.
"My primary work at the time of getting involved with these collaborators was actually work that I'd been doing in commercial maize breeding for global maize production around the world," he said.
"I gave a presentation at a conference in Europe and the lead authors on this study were also at that meeting, and they saw that there was synergies with the work that I previously had done, and the work they were planning to do.
"My involvement was really to take a lot of the lessons that we've learned from doing this in maize and for them to take their modeling capabilities and attempt to apply them in this first iteration for improving wheat yield."
The study also involved leading wheat experts from Denmark, France, Germany, The Netherlands and Mexico.
The team analysed 53 wheat growing regions across 33 countries in all wheat growing environments.
Study co-lead Dr Mikhail Semenov said in all cases, current wheat varieties were found to be underperforming for grain yield.
"Current wheat cultivars are, on average, only at the half-way point with respect to the yields they could produce given the mismatches between their genetics and local wheat growing conditions," Dr Semenov said.
"Global wheat production could be doubled by the genetic improvement of local wheat cultivars - without increasing global wheat area."
The study also revealed that by optimising plant traits, like tolerance to drought and heat stresses, the size of light-capturing upper leaves and the timing of key life cycle events could boost harvests substantially.
Professor Cooper said the results identified a number of promising new opportunities to focus future interdisciplinary research on key trait networks and the combined breeding and agronomy technologies.
"This will be required to close current yield gaps and underpin global food security in a sustainable way," he said.
"The important next step is to evaluate these predicted opportunities experimentally within the context of the genotype by management by environment on-farm conditions for the different wheat producing areas investigated globally.
"There's value in continuing the breeding work and you get some idea of targets that have a chance of greater chance of success.
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