Innovative breeding platform to improve wheat yields

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A partnership between government and the wheat production sector has led to the launch of a platform that will improve wheat yields, despite the challenging climate.

The multimillion-rand Wheat Breeding Platform at Welgevallen Experimental Farm in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape -- established in 2014 as a consortium comprising public and private sector partners -- is also set to help South Africa meet the current local wheat demand and also become a wheat exporter.

Speaking shortly after the launch of the platform, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said the platform was launched after a partnership was forged between the private sector, particularly the wheat industry, and government to seek solutions to address challenges faced by the industry in relation to low production and competitiveness, as well as the country’s rising demand for the commodity.

“It is very important that we work with researchers to support and enhance our agricultural productivity by producing products that will respond to the particular conditions in which we do agriculture in South Africa and on the African continent.

“We also want to particularly focus on seed products that are relevant to our conditions so those areas in which we wish to increase exports and reduce imports. We look at improved maize yields, improved wheat yields.

“We import over 46% of our wheat into South Africa. If we can improve the quality and have a larger product coming out of seeds that we produce innovatively in South Africa, that would be excellent,” she said.

The Minister said the department’s involvement was basically to provide funding support through relevant programmes to fund research and development in an identified focus area.

The department has invested R15 million into a multi-consortium wheat breeding programme with the aim of improving abiotic stresses such as drought and extreme temperatures.

The platform is a partnership between the department, Grain SA, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the Agricultural Research Council, Sensako, Pannar and Stellenbosch University, among others.

Wheat is the second most important grain crop produced in South Africa and plays an important role in national food security.

With the Western Cape recently being hit by drought conditions that are threatening food safety, Minister Pandor said the initiative is expected to assist farmers cope with crop demands.

“What we are attempting to do is to respond to specific conditions that we are confronted with in South Africa… Where there is uncertainty about water resources, it doesn’t make sense to rely on the normal seeds that everybody uses, assuming particular levels of moisture availability.

“What we are doing is using science, especially biotechnology, to develop seeds that are responsive to drought conditions. That will give us a higher yield, notwithstanding the challenges that we have with respect to water.”

Marinda Visser, a manager of Grain Research and Policy at Grain SA, said the initiative came to light in 2014. It was driven by a sharp decline of wheat production in the country.

“We went from over 1.4 million hectares planted to a situation where currently, less than 500 000 hectares are planted. To be exact, 420 000 hectares are planted currently.

“In the late 1990s, we used to plant 1.4 million hectares to wheat. What does that tell you? We have a problem. The wheat industry is in distress and there are many different reasons – profitability, the climate, investments in research and development and research… That is why industry went to government, asked for assistance and formed this partnership where we got together and figured out how to go about it.

“Some of the challenges were economic and we went to the Department of Trade and Industry for tariffs and talked about what needs to be done in that space. Some were policy regulatory issues and we went to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and discussed those issues.

“We went to the Department of Science and Technology and asked if they can make investments and partner with the industry, which until that stage, had been paying for all the research and development in the wheat industry,” Visser said. –

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