Could bread soon be unrecognizable?

Could bread soon be unrecognizable?

The history of bread is closely linked to the cultivation of different varieties of wheat. Human optimization of bread-making wheat has made a huge contribution to the development of civilization as a whole. However, in order to continue the development of wheat cultivation and feed more people, new technologies are required, such as green biotechnology. But significant obstacles remain.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Hardly any other foodstuff has such symbolic value as bread. It is a unique symbol of life and vitality. It is a cornerstone of human civilization. The NZZ has investigated the development of bread-making wheat. The kind of wheat required to bake bread has been cultivated and grown by humans for around 10,000 years. The transformation from what was known as “einkorn” around 8000-6000 years BC into the bread-making wheat we use today took place via innumerable instances of cross-breeding and technological advancements. The same is true of durum wheat, which is used to make pasta, among other things. Today there are several thousand different types of wheat. They are used in very diverse types of baking and are optimized for growth in an extremely wide variety of regions and climate zones.


An unparalleled success story

The transformation of wheat is a success story in which selection and further cultivation by humans have also played a part. And the success story is set to continue. Global wheat needs are growing. Wheat is grown in 120 countries across the world and is consumed in almost all, specifically 173, countries. Global agriculture produces around 100 kg of wheat per head every year. Wheat provides a fifth of the calories that humans consume in one year. Grain varieties such as rice traditionally play a more significant role in the cuisine of East Asian countries, but in this region, too, wheat consumption is increasing. In 1963, wheat consumption in China was just 23 kg per head, whereas today, it has tripled to 63 kg per person per year.


Same cropland, greater yields

The United Nations forecasts that approximately ten billion people will populate the earth in 2050. This means that wheat production also needs to increase. Today, humans consume 784 million tons of wheat every year. To keep pace with population growth, an additional 132 million tons will need to be produced by 2050. A look at the expansion of cropland reveals something astonishing. Since 1980, the global cropland for wheat has remained practically unchanged. It has even slightly reduced, from 240 million hectares to 217 million hectares. By contrast, productivity has clearly increased in recent decades. In the 1960s, farmers could harvest around a ton of wheat per hectare. Today, the same area yields 3.5 tons.


Research for greater productivity

New technologies such as marker-assisted selection using CRISPR/Cas are particularly effective for achieving a further marked increase in productivity on the same land area. The molecular biologist Beat Keller has been researching the wheat genome for decades at the University of Zurich. He is a member of the international research team that fully decoded the wheat genome for the very first time, which also opened the door to new possibilities for crop cultivation. Keller has cultivated a wheat variety that is resistant to “downy mildew”, a widespread fungal disease. It covers the plant in light blotches which hinder photosynthesis. The plant thus lacks the energy to form grains, resulting in yields reduced by up to 40%. Keller and his team succeeded in isolating a gene responsible for cellular immune response from a variety of wheat particularly resistant to mildew. This gene was then introduced into a native wheat variety and grown in a screened-off test field at Agroscope in Reckenholz.


“Improper use of the precautionary principle”

The results leave no room for doubt: resistance can be significantly improved in wheat varieties cultivated in this manner. However, the genetic engineering moratorium, in force in Switzerland since 2005, means that free cultivation and commercial use of this wheat is impossible, despite the fact that the benefits are clear and virtually zero risk is posed to humans or to the environment. Why is there so much skepticism toward genetic engineering? Beat Keller cannot really explain it either. He tells the NZZ that it is probably to do with widespread fears and “improper use of the precautionary principle” in Swiss environmental protection. This is also clear from the fact that environmental organizations have the right to appeal under the Genetic Engineering Law.


The illusion of authenticity

With its restrictive attitude to green biotechnology, however, Switzerland is missing out on the chance to profit from the enormous potential of new plant varieties, such as Keller’s wheat. Countries such as China and the US have already made much more progress. Keller is convinced that the increased productivity urgently needed to feed the global population can only be achieved through marker-assisted selection. It is already being used in developing countries to effectively protect farmers’ crops from pests, enabling them to save a lot of money through not having to purchase expensive plant protection products. This would also benefit the environment. Plants that adapt even better to local environmental conditions such as drought could also be bred. However, the desire of many consumers for “natural” foodstuffs means that things are unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. This is all the more incomprehensible given that the wheat in our daily bread was not created by natural selection either.

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