The Issue with Wheat

by Joanna Wolstenholme

Looking at today’s Western world, with fast food readily available, huge problems with obesity, and a ridiculous amount of food wastage, you would never know that there is a need for more wheat. Yet with the world population rapidly expanding, and workable agricultural land area set to decrease due to rising sea levels, ever increasing cities and rising salinity, yields have got to rise dramatically.

Wheat2AttribProf. Beddington stated at the 2009 BBRSC Food Security Summit that “we need 50% more production by 2020, on less land, less water, using less energy, less pesticides and less fertiliser.” That is quite a challenge, not helped by the fact that wheat yields in the UK (one of our most important cereal crops) have plateaued since 1999, and this is a trend that is starting to be repeated across the world. If wheat yield remains static we will need 360 million more hectares of agricultural land in order to meet the 2030 target. That is equivalent to 24 UKs.

It is at times like these that the plant science sector comes into its own. Rather than increasing agricultural area, scientists are working to increase the yield of wheat, to get more food out of the land we already have. In the UK, the Wheat Improvement Strategic Program (or more snappily WISP), coordinated by the BBSRC, has been set up to help meet Prof. Beddington’s target. This collaboration encompasses a variety of projects, based at the John Innes Centre, NIAB and Nottingham University. They are using mostly traditional breeding techniques (allowing them to bypass the time consuming ethical maze that surrounds GM) to introduce new genetic material, and quantify the variety that is already there. Backcrossing current commercial varieties with older wheat strains allows new diversity to be created, widening the frighteningly small genetic diversity of the current commercial wheat strains.

Wheat1AttribAndy Greenland’s group at NIAB, however, has taken it one step further, and is ‘resynthesizing’ wheat – by crossing a diploid (having 2 chromosomes) goat grass (Aegilops tauschii) with tetraploid (4 chromosomes) wheats such as wild and cultivated emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccoides and T. dicoccum) and durum or pasta wheat (T. turgidum). This allows him to recapture the moment that occurred some 10,000 years ago in the fertile crescent, when the first hexaploid  (6 chromosome-d) wheat was created. These new ‘synthetic wheats’ will be crossed with bread wheat to create ‘pre-breeding’ material suited to the UK climate. Already this project is showing promise – this new ‘superwheat’ (as it has been coined by the press) has shown yields of up to 30% more than normal varieties, and is able to cope with low nitrogen soils, meaning that it will require less fertilisers.

Whilst the work being carried out by the WISP collaborators is incredible in itself, there is one factor that makes it very special in my eyes. All the results of crosses and genetic analyses, along with the germplasm (small pieces of living tissue from which new plants can be grown) will be freely available. This means that plant breeders can use the germplasm to cross with their existing lines, which will speed up the vital process of getting this new research into commercial varieties. Additionally, academics will be able to use this information to further their own research in the area. Without such open collaboration, it would be much harder to make use of any important discoveries, and use them for what they were intended for: to increase wheat yield and help feed the world.

Finally, to underline the importance of such work: in the next 50 years, we will need to harvest as much wheat as has been produced since the beginning of agriculture, which was some 10,000 years ago.

The Food Paradox

by Tom Evans


When it comes down to food, we live in the land of milk and honey. Never before has it been so abundant, so readily accessible – and so preoccupying. Food has always pervaded our social lives, but it’s now taken over realms not previously invaded. In the form of MasterChef and The Great British Bake Off, it’s on the TV more regularly than the ten o’clock news while celebrity chefs elevate cooking into an art form worthy of the Dutch Masters. Not that this is a problem. It’s enjoyable and, after all, relishing the act of eating is simply paying compliment to the huge diversity of our natural world and the great things that we can do with it when we try.

But our issue with food lies in the fact that we have a deeply paradoxical relationship with it. We deify and take great pleasure in food and we hold it in such high regard, but at the same time we act as if it is as disposable as used nappies. Every year the UK wastes 14.8 million tonnes of food. That’s a number too impossibly large to comprehend. Like Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” A quick back of the envelope calculation works out that, on average, we waste 230kg of food a year per person. That’s three times the average person’s body weight.

The huge amount of food thrown away every day was recently quantified by supermarket giant Tesco, in their first public report on the matter. They estimate that 32% of food is wasted along the value chain, the sequence of activities that a company performs in order to deliver their product to market. So almost one-third of all food grown isn’t eaten. And, according to their report, consumers waste 16% of the food produced for UK consumption, with another 16% loss due to the producers; interestingly, the retailers themselves waste less than 1%. A detailed examination of what exactly is being wasted reveals how serious the problem is. 40% of the total production of apples is unused; 47% for bakery; 68% for bagged salad. In each case, the largest proportion was due to the consumer.


We can’t afford to throw away so much food. Families waste £700 a year on binned food. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the price of cereals, central both to human diets and those of our livestock, tripled between 2000 and September 2012. Increasing food prices means more people struggling to eat – and prices only get worse if we throw away usable food. This year, according to The Trussell Trust, the number of people needing to use food banks in the UK tripled to 350,000. They pin the increase down to above-inflation food prices, as well as the current squeeze on benefits due to the global recession.

But unlike global food prices and international market stability, we, as individuals, can actually do something about how much food we throw away. Simple things, such as learning how to use leftover bread. Food often lasts much longer than the sell-by date, especially eggs and milk. Tesco is now starting a campaign to help its consumers reduce their food wastage, as well as buying less superfluous food in the first place. The sum of our actions counts towards something; every little helps.

Food security is often perceived as a problem confined to the developing world, where the struggle of subsistence farming persists. But in times of economic hardship, the developed world will increasingly suffer from rising food prices and food shortages. Changing our paradoxical approach to food is key to helping prevent this. We can be intelligent about how we treat food, and at the same time indulge ourselves with the next series of Hell’s Kitchen. All it takes is awareness.