When consumers buy wheat products, such as bread or pasta, they expect to get protein with their purchase. But in a warming world with high atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, the genes required to keep wheat production high are the same ones that keep grain protein down, a University of Florida scientist says.
By breeding wheat with specific traits, scientists can help farmers grow more wheat, even in global hot spots, said Senthold Asseng, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
While farmers can produce enough wheat, sometimes the grain lacks protein. That’s because the same genes that help keep grain yields steady lower the protein levels in wheat, said Asseng, who led a newly published study on wheat quality worldwide.
“That’s why breeders and agronomists, including those at UF/IFAS, are exploring new ways to improve grain yield without losing grain quality,” he said.
In the study, scientists gathered field data and used it for computer models. In those models, researchers showed that if growers plant new crop varieties, they can help offset the potential danger of warmer temperatures on wheat yield.
“In adapting crops to climate change, if we focus strictly on grain yields, we lose important quality characteristics of our grains,” Asseng said. “So in addition to adaptation — which aims to improve yield — we need to think about ways to also mitigate the negative consequences from climate change on grain protein concentration. Elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide is reducing grain protein. In addition, adaptation, which helps to maintain or increase yield, further reduces grain protein concentration.”
In their study, scientists found a way to counteract negative impacts on farmers’ wheat yield, caused by higher temperatures, Asseng said.
“We used different wheat varieties which were grown in field experiments across temperature environments for specific traits,” he said. “We then used that data in simulation models across the globe.”
“And these traits can mitigate some of the temperature-induced yield losses in many wheat-growing environments across the world,” Asseng said. “While this is a success for yield, unfortunately, grain protein concentration will decline with these traits and elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide.”
China leads the world in wheat production, with 126 million metric tons per year, followed by India, Russia, the U.S. and Canada, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
This latest research comes as part of a larger international research project that Asseng co-leads, called the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project – or AgMIP.
The study is published in the journal Global Change Biology.