Breeders soak up oversea experiences
By Mike Pumphrey
One of the best things about working in agriculture is seeing the fruits (or seeds) of my labor turn into products people enjoy and rely on for nutrition. Watching people eat foods baked from wheat that I’ve had a hand in creating gives me enormous satisfaction.
And yet, because all but around 10 percent of the wheat produced in Eastern Washington is sent overseas, I rarely have that experience. Except when I do see international customers, thanks to the Washington Grain Commission (WGC) and U.S. Wheat Associates (USW), which organize overseas trips that often include wheat breeders.
WSU winter wheat breeder Arron Carter was in South America a few times in 2019, Agriculture Research Service scientist and club breeder Kim Campbell was in Japan in 2018 and I had the opportunity to travel to Thailand in 2017. As important as breeder interactions with trade teams that come to the U.S. are, traveling to the countries these teams represent is also critical.
Each time breeders participate in one of these overseas customer-focused events, we return with knowledge that would have been impossible to gain otherwise. As I was part of a USW-organized Japan Buyers Conference in November 2019, I thought it appropriate to reflect here on what these overseas experiences mean to those of us making the first wheat crosses.
I often see a disconnect between the scientists developing wheat varieties and those who are actually buying and consuming our grains. That divide can be extended to include others along the grain chain, from seedmen and farmers to input dealers, marketers and exporters. The bottom line is this: All of us need to strive to be better informed about market preferences.
With a surplus of wheat on the world market, we must continue to maintain a quality-based market. That starts with educating ourselves and investing in developing and delivering good information. Certainly, each time I participate in a customer-focused event, I learn something which changes the way I do my job.
In the U.S. and in many of our major wheat markets, less than 5 percent of the population is engaged in agricultural professions, and a fraction of that number in the wheat supply chain. The average person in almost every country in the world moves farther from food production, or raw food ingredients, almost every year. As a result, we need to better communicate with our customers on science, production and processing issues.
Clearly communicating basic crop production practices, the biology of wheat and the technologies available and how they work, is very important for the future of the industry. Almost every Asian trade team that visits us in the Palouse wants to discuss genetically modified organisms, falling numbers, and emerging gene editing techniques.
These same questions are asked when we travel abroad for market development and customer support events. They are not simple subjects, but the value in our exchanges is two-way. As breeders, we learn how to perform our jobs better, while our customers are alerted to technical information that will benefit them. Connecting with your customers’ issues and concerns is an important part of any business.
As a wheat breeder, I’m often reminded we have many customers and stakeholders to consider. Direct relationships with other researchers, extension agents, seed dealers, crop consultants, farmers, cooperatives, milling and baking companies, grain traders, federal agencies, and even specific international customers, must be maintained to ensure consistent supply and demand for a high-quality, suitable, product. Far from being overwhelmed, I feel fortunate that I am connected to so many parts of the production and supply chain, from research to overseas table.
I appreciate the way the WGC and USW proactively discuss industry challenges and continue to enlist technical experts to inform and work with our customers directly. With gene editing techniques specifically, the conversations need to become more frequent, as the technology will be a major force in the industry looking forward.
At the Japan Buyers Conference in November, ag economics professor William Wilson from North Dakota State University, highlighted how venture capital investment in gene editing is experiencing a major boom with more money available than good projects to invest in. Preparing the market for the flood of new products is paramount and I believe the first step toward that goal is talking about how they are made.
In meetings with the Japan Flour Millers Association and Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries officials, I learned that the Japanese government has already framed their basic policies on gene-edited crops and how their various agencies will coordinate their imports and regulation. This type of information needs to be discussed and shared with other countries, among plant breeders and within the entire wheat industry.
In the Pacific Northwest, we are primarily a high-quality commodity market, but there is increasing demand for differentiated grain products which new technologies will develop. Advanced breeding techniques such a genomics-enabled mutation screening, genomic selection approaches, large-scale doubled haploid production, not to mention gene editing, will continue to accelerate the rate that novel traits can be developed and deployed in commercial varieties. As a result, we will see more rapid development of varieties with distinctive production traits and end-use properties.
Although Japan appears open to commercialization of gene edited products, the standards for production and use of gene edited crops in other countries are likely to be variable and subjective. This is a complex challenge for our internationally traded commodity and we must work together to get ahead of the deluge of products that are coming.
Milling and baking companies from both domestic and international markets regularly express interest in distinct, exclusive, or specialty wheat functionality. Here, I’m talking about varieties that have been developed to be full waxy, higher in fiber, or with reduced gluten. Soft durum is another trait that can be exploited in identity preserved markets.
All of these traits plus others, will accelerate as more advance breeding methods come online, providing both an opportunity and challenge for our traditional commodity market streams. With varieties and traits being introduced more rapidly than in the past, industry diligence cannot flag. A specialty grain that ends up in the wrong supply chain can have profound consequences for the farmer, the marketer, the exporter and the customer.
By and large, the message I received from customers in Japan and across Asia is that they really like PNW wheat, and don’t want us to change the status quo too much. We’ve heard the same message from South America, and our small domestic market. As a result, we have been careful to maintain a balance between dough elasticity and extensibility in our keystone soft white wheat germplasm, the traits that makes PNW soft white so useful in so many different products.
Club wheat adds another tool to optimize functionality for Asian customers that purchase the Western White Wheat class, an 80 percent soft white, 20 percent club blend. But disruptive changes in the overall quality of our wheat varieties should be of concern, as new traits often come in less then perfect packages as variety developers rush to capture market share and return on investment.
Washington wheat growers and the Washington Grain Commission have, over a 60-year history, traveled the world listening to customer needs as they marketed high quality Northwest wheat. Returning home, they have leveraged the feedback by supporting research that strengthens the industry by improving end use quality.
Wheat breeders are arguably the first link in what is a complicated grain chain, but by working together with every other link, I believe we can rest assured the fruits of our labors will always be sweet.