Wheat myth debunked

The pervasive myth that intensive breeding has made modern wheat cultivars weaker and more dependent on pesticides and fertilisers is debunked by a major new study

University of Queensland

This is Kai Voss-Fels at the wheat trial site. Credit: Kai Voss-Fels

This is Kai Voss-Fels at the wheat trial site. Credit: Kai Voss-Fels

The myth that modern wheat varieties are more heavily reliant on pesticides and fertilisers is debunked by new research published in Nature Plants today.

Lead author on the paper, Dr Kai Voss-Fels, a research fellow at The University of Queensland, said modern wheat cropping varieties actually out-perform older varieties in both optimum and harsh growing conditions.

“There is a view that intensive selection and breeding which has produced the high-yielding wheat cultivars used in modern cropping systems has also made modern wheat less resilient and more dependent on chemicals to thrive,” said Dr Voss-Fels.

“However, the data unequivocally shows that modern wheat varieties out-perform older varieties, even under conditions of reduced amounts of fertilisers, fungicides and water,” he said.

“We also found that genetic diversity within the often-criticised modern wheat gene pool is rich enough to generate a further 23 per cent increase in yields.”

Dr Voss-Fels said the findings might surprise some farmers and environmentalists.

“Quite a few people will be taken aback by just how tough modern wheat varieties proved to be, even in harsh growing conditions, such as drought, and using less chemical inputs.”

Dr Voss-Fels said the findings could have potentially important implications for raising the productivity of organic cropping systems. “It’s been widely assumed that the older wheat cultivars are more robust and resilient but it’s actually the modern cultivars that perform best in optimum and sub-optimum conditions.”

Wheat is the world’s most important food crop.

However, with global wheat yields reduced due to droughts in recent years and more climate risk anticipated in the future, the hardiness of modern wheat varieties is an issue of global significance.

The study is believed to provide the most detailed description of the consequences of intensive breeding and genetic selection for high grain yield and associated traits in European wheat over the past 50 years.

It was led by Professor Rod Snowdon of the Justus-Liebig-University Gießen (JLU), who is also an honorary Professor at UQ, in collaboration with seven other German universities.

The genetic analysis was undertaken at QAAFI under the leadership of Professor Ben Hayes.

The first part of the study involved testing 200 wheat varieties that have been essential to agriculture in Western Europe in the past 50 years.

Performance was compared between those varieties in side-by-side field trials under high, medium and low chemical input conditions. The second part of the study was undertaken at QAAFI, to match the performance differences with the different varieties’ genetic make-up.

“This genetic information allows us to take the discovery to the next level,” Dr Voss-Fels says.

“We can use artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to predict the optimal crosses needed to bring together the most favourable segments as fast as possible.”


The paper ‘Breeding improves wheat productivity under contrasting agrochemical input levels’ was published in Nature Plants 17 June 2019 (DOI: 10.1038/s41477-019-0445-5).

From EurekAlert!

55 thoughts on “Wheat myth debunked

    • I would expect, based upon existing knowledge and data, that having more food available tends to make any species healthier and stronger and better able to resist stress. CO2 = plant food.

    • I was having a similar thought. How would both do under vastly decreased CO2 conditions. Say dropped back to Pre Indistrial levels that the Greentards want

    • Getting the results might be a little more complicated than you think.

      At one time, back when CO2 levels were much lower, there was a UK textbook online (alas no longer available) that discussed CO2 and crops. It stated that during high-growing days in the UK, the crops in large wheat fields stopped growing in the afternoon. This was because the LOCAL levels of CO2 dropped to levels too low for growth. Imagine hundred of thousands of little stomatas open wide, gulping in all the CO2 they could. At night, when all photosynthesis stopped, the levels of carbom dioxide would go up enough to allow continued growth the next morning.

      So someone experimenting with just a few plants on a college campus might see little change in growth from additional CO2 (the plants have enough to grow all day without the addition), but in the same environment, a farmer with a huge croo might see a tremendous increase in growth with more CO2 in the air.

      Just one more reason why results in the lab may not produce the same as results outside the lab.

  1. So, as usual, all the negativity and nay-saying proved to be wrong, huh? AGAIN! As for the CO2 aspect, it’s good for ALL plants, not just trees. What we are up against is NOT ‘climate change’ but the old standard El Nino. Once it has finally played itself out, we will be back to ‘normal’. It’s best we just enjoy it while we may. The old Earth is getting along just fine, without our ‘help’, as it always has in the past. Have a GREAT DAY!

  2. Interesting and encouraging study, but it stopped too soon. It may please the farmers, but yield is not the end measure of wheat. How about comparing old and new varieties based on the bread they produce and the nutritive value of wheat products. I have no reason to suspect the quality of new varieties, except that I have had enough tomatoes, grown to survive shipping, that taste like red Styrofoam.

    • The problem is the shipping.
      If you want good tomatoes grow them yourself or fid them nearby.

    • A ripe tomato has a very short shipping and shelf life. They are easily damaged in handling, especially by store customers rummaging through the pile to find the ‘perfect’ tomato! That is why tomatoes are harvested as ‘breakers’, when they just turn from green to pale cream color on the vine, and packed for shipping while they are still firm. Exposure to ethylene gas during shipping causes them to redden before being sold at the market. Ethylene gas is naturally emitted by many ripening fruit.

      • Had a long conversation with a tomato farmer from Alabama in a bar about six months ago. Funny ol time southern boy. Really nice guy.

        “You know why growing tomatoes is so #$%%% hard?


        Then he lamented how one hailstorm cost him over 100,000 dollars.

        I asked if crop insurance was available. He put his head down and mumbled, yeah.

        • CTM,
          When I go to farmers markets in the summer time, I ask the vendors if they might have ripe tomatoes that are ‘less than perfect’, and available at a discount. Some do and I’d rather have a vine ripe tomato with a blemish than a perfect tomato that has been reddened by gas ripening.

          I grew up with a hoe in my hand, on a small (135 acres) farm in WI. Along with beef steers, hogs, and a family milk cow, we had a summertime ‘road side stand’ featuring all of the fruits and vegetables that our gardens and fields would grow. We had a reliable customer base from the Milwaukee and Chicago folks that had second homes on a large lake adjacent to our farm. Even back then, the customer impulse for ‘perfect’ fruit and vegetables was present. I still laugh when I remember a well dressed older gal that showed up about midday asking 13 year old me “Are you sure this sweet corn is fresh?!” I replied “Ma’am, the corn left on the stand at the end of each day is fed to the pigs in that pen right over there on the end of the barn. We pick 13 dozen ears of fresh corn each morning at 6am and more in the afternoon, if needed. If this 6-7 hours since picked sweet corn doesn’t look fresh enough to suit you, you can ride on the tractor fender with me out to the sweet corn field and pick your own.” She paused a moment, politely differed and bought a dozen ears. I think it was the mental image of her riding on the tractor fender that gave her pause…. and still makes me laugh today!

  3. “..with global wheat yields reduced due to droughts in recent years …”

    Really? Perhaps this statement was required to get the paper published. But according to the UN Food and Agricultural Production Organization, 2017 wheat production , (the most recent info available to me), rose to a record high of 771 million metric tons. This follows four years of production all above 700 million metric tons. If there is global drought, it seems not to be affecting wheat production.

  4. A quick check shows that global wheat production has increased recently. Maybe the author means yield per acre which I did not check. I guess it depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.

  5. Now, can we debunk the idea that a gluten-free diet is of any value to people without celiac disease?

    • No. We need to debunk the idea that digesting the seeds of plants, especially wheat, is a good idea, with the possible exceptions of white rice and fermented grains such as sourdough bread (in very limited quantities). I believe some decent quality studies have shown that non-celiac gluten sensitivity does exist, but more importantly, there is just no good reason to be eating things that we did not eat in large quantities until very recently and which have other major problems like blood-sugar spikes and hunger dis-regulation to name just two. Let’s put our energy into getting people to eliminate non-paleo foods (grains, seed oils, industrial foods (including gluten-free),added sugars, and milk/cheese for some people).

      • We had guests over for pizza awhile back. One of them had celiac disease so, we ordered a gluten-free pizza for him. I ate some of it. I had enormous tummy problems for two days after. It could have been coincidence but I’ve never eaten gluten-free again and don’t plan on starting now.

      • I’ve seen this discussion of everyone having some level of gluten intolerence come up in talks about lectins (which gluten is one of). This affects the intestinal ‘tight junctions’ causing particles to pass between intestinal cells into the blood streams and causing many auto immune responses. It does seem best to avoid all seed products (especially seed oils, most commonly called vegetable oils).

        The fact that many of these same seed crops are smothered in glyophate also isn’t a great endorsement either.

        • “does that mean that grains can be included in a Paleo diet?”

          Probably not. Most traditional cultures that ate a lot of grains used fermentation, sprouting, or removal of the husk to make them more tolerable. Some people seem to do ok with them and many people don’t. Also, the bad affects can be very hard to detect until they have caused other problems (such as joint pain) that don’t appear to be caused by the grains. Bottom line and what I do is have them in moderation if you do ok with them (as in being in perfect health overall), but keep them to occasional treats, not dietary staples. In other words, do the opposite of what our dietary “authorities” recommend. It also worth remembering that 30,000 years ago we often ate whatever we could, not necessarily what we were adapted to. Some animals have a well-developed set of enzymes to digest grains (mice for example) but we are not one of those animals for the most part.

          Regarding “gluten free” products, these are well-known to often contain nasty ingredients to replace the gluten. There are lots of recipes for fairly natural, paleo-0compliant, fairly low-carb, great tasting pizza-esque creations. Once I gave up wheat I realized it adds almost no taste that can’t be better-provided by something that isn’t as high-risk.

  6. Grain farming has progressed a lot. My guess is that the yield per acre has more than doubled since the 1950s. That’s mostly due to improved cultivars. In addition, some folks are implementing zero till agriculture. It makes everything more efficient.

    In light of the above, it seems reasonable that insecticide and fertilizer use have gone down a lot on a per bushel basis.

    • Recently I was reading about the effects of different species of worms on soil characteristics. One species of worm that is ‘invasive’ in the regions of Norht America that was glaciated is supposed to be real bad because it makes the soil similar to soil that has been deep ploughed and this changes the forest structure in places like Minnisota. It struck me that zero till agriculture is dependent on worms mixing the soil, so that mulch and compost added to the surface are moved to be available for plant growth. Interesting that this is not mentioned by the zero till lot, and the worm lot focus on forests, not agriculture. Maybe one day they will talk

      • North America is odd in that for some reason earthworms have not recolonized much of the formerly glaciated areas. In Eurasia they have, with generally beneficial effects. And of course everything is invasive in Minnesota, except possibly some bacteria that could survive under the Laurentide icecap.

      • Zero-till isn’t dependant on worms.

        It is dependant plant root exudes and mycorrhizal fungi primarily.

        The fungi 2 hugely positive things:

        1) The slough off prodigious amount of glomalin proteins. Glomalin proteins are effectively the motar that forms soil aggregates and holds it together. Without glomalin you don’t have healthy soil.

        2) They form a network that can span an entire field. They scour the field for nutrients plants need then they transport the nutrients to the plants and trade it for plant root exudes of carbohydrates.

        You’ve seen the signs “Will work for food”. Mycorrhizal fungi mean it. Give them carbohydrates and they will scour the field for nutrients for plants.

        • @greg Freemyer

          Very good point. Do you know what the effects of deep plowing on mycorrhizal functions? Has anyone ever formally compared no-till plots the have and do not have worms? It seems to me that worms must work in concert with mycorrhizal mycellae in soil by turning over the layers.

  7. I have never heard any of the anti wheat crowd complain about yield or that the new wheat needs more chemicals. It is more modern farming practices which leads to spraying the crops with roundup just before harvest. Also the concern that the new wheat has more anti nutrients such at gluten, wheat gem agglutinin, glidins etc not necessarily in total amounts but more of the types of for example gluten that are irritating to the intestinal biome. Note roundup is a potent antibiotic and there are several studies showing effects on the biome.

    • From a farmer who grew biscuit wheat in New Zealand in the Waikato, not a wheat growing area.
      Our summer climate has reasonable rain fall over summer but we never used Roundup on wheat barley or oat crops as these crops ripen naturally and as we did not have drying facilities we harvested when the grain dropped to 14% moisture content .
      I am sure that farmers in our main grain growing areas do not desiccate their grain crops as that would have to be applied from the air and it would be another unneeded expense.
      Yields have been increasing for many years and the world record for wheat yield is held by a New Zealand farmer in the South Island .

      • I think I need to get my food from you. Here in Canada 90% or crops sprayed with roundup as a desiccant.

        • yup and so dried roundup on husks goes to seedcleaning and the dust is still there to coat the grain they mill, and thats what would appear to be upsetting peoples gut bacteria/biome not the gluten.
          just another expensive and stupid big aggri money spinner.
          also caused in part by the overpriced new machinery thats screens clag ever so easily with plant material- the old ones handled just fine.

  8. This sentence just seemed to come out of nowhere:

    However, with global wheat yields reduced due to droughts in recent years and more climate risk anticipated in the future, the hardiness of modern wheat varieties is an issue of global significance.

    Why not use this sentence in its place: However, with global wheat yield linked to the number of peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwiches increasing over the years, the hardiness of modern wheat varieties is an issue of global significance.

    Really, that sentence seems to be some sort of filler — an out of place, in your face, agenda-driven, activist-driven drivel nugget.

    • It’s the standard bow to the Green Glob which will enable papers to get published these days. I wonder if it was inserted by someone other than the authors.

      • That one sentence ruins an otherwise informative piece of writing — it says nothing of substance, due to its glaring generality, thus appearing completely out of place — so transparent that it sickens me.

  9. This is from Australia? He’d better be careful or he’ll be hounded out of Academia for preaching heresy.

  10. Broadbalk Field at Rothamsted Research Station has been growing wheat continuously since 1843.
    The data is available at:
    You can have lots of fun looking at the incredible amount of detail available.
    Plots that have had no fertiliser for the whole period are still giving yields of around 1 tonne per hectare.

    • and your brilliant research work done by Albrecht and his successors showing similar should be widely known and it isnt.
      they were far better than borlaug in my opinion.

  11. As the University of Queensland has demonstrated an inability to conduct science with respect to climate change, why would I believe a report from any other department there?

    • correct , theres another dept there needs a good clean out it might just be about to get
      wish i could say more, but later it might be possible not just now while some legal actions are in motion.

  12. I used to run cereal breeding programs in Australia. We we were selecting for not just high yield potential but high stability of yield over environments and seasons so this is not all that surprising.

  13. The article:
    “However, with global wheat yields reduced due to droughts in recent years and more climate risk anticipated in the future, the hardiness of modern wheat varieties is an issue of global significance.”

    “Nonetheless, the agency highlighted that a 2018-19 harvest of 744m tonnes – which is in line with an International Grains Council forecast of 741m tonnes – would “remain above average”.

    Furthermore, it would come at a time of bumper inventories, with global wheat stocks expected to swell over 2017-18 despite a smaller harvest, with stockpiles seen growing by 21.7m tonnes to a record 269.8m tonnes.

    This represented an upgrade of 12.8m tonnes from last month’s forecast, a revision reflecting an increased estimate for production and carry-in stocks, and a lower figure for consumption.

    By contrast, the estimate for 2017-18 demand for coarse grains was lifted by 8.5m tonnes, reflecting “faster growth in the use of corn for feed in Asian countries”.”


  14. It is good that this research was done, but I honestly don’t see why there is any question that modern cultivars perform better.
    The modern cultivars are simply more efficient in converting inputs to wheat; it is less obvious that a less efficient, older version would somehow be better.
    This isn’t a situation like with Dairy cows – where the dairy cows used in the West are so much more high throughput than “natural” varieties that they strain the ecosystems in 3rd world nations.
    The only other possibility is that “older” versions of wheat are somehow putting up extra herbicide/insecticide type defenses which make them more resistant to competitors/predators, but again that doesn’t make sense since all of the wheat varieties used in the past thousand years or so are many, many somatic varieties removed from the “wild” origin.
    It would be like saying a chow chow is more ecologically competitive than a mini-husky because it is an older breed. This might be, but I wouldn’t assume it.

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