More wheat, less water

China and Australia can dramatically boost wheat yields and improve food security by unlocking the genetic potential within the hundreds of wheat varieties grown in the two countries. That’s the promise of the latest collaboration between wheat researchers in the two countries.

Chinese farmers have been growing wheat for at least 4,000 years. Crop yields per hectare are now nearly 10 times higher than in 1960 and China is now the largest wheat producer in the world. But wheat researchers say we can do more.

“In China, wheat is grown in dryland areas such as Inner Mongolia, Hebei, and Gansu. Growing conditions are similar to Western Australia,” says Professor Jacqueline Batley from The University of Western Australia (UWA).

“When the conditions are good, yields are high. But in times of high temperature and low rainfall, crops can fail. Working together, we can create drought tolerant crops with higher yield,” she says.

Professor Batley is part of a new project that builds on decades of agricultural collaboration between China and Australia including:

  • Contributing to the global effort to decode the wheat genome.
  • Helping Chinese farmers make better use of water through mulching and tillage in a project between UWA and Lanzhou University
  • Producing better tasting and higher quality bread using new genome data for wheat grown in Australia (Murdoch University and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences)

“For this new project we are analysing 1,500 strains of wheat, from China and Australia,” says Professor Batley. “It’s exciting to work with our colleagues at the Inner Mongolia Academy of Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Sciences, the Gansu Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and the Hebei Academy of Agricultural and Forestry Sciences. They bring vast experience in field work and crop trials and their laboratories are surrounded by fields to trial new wheat strains.”

Wheatfield in Xinjiang

The Australian team’s skills include genomics expertise and new breeding technologies that enable eight generations of crop per year.

“We’re finding that there’s a lot of untapped diversity in wheat. I think we’ll keep increasing the yields for decades to come,” says Professor Batley.

“Exchanging wheat strains between Australian and China is the key to success,” says Professor Guijun Yan from UWA. “With improved breeding lines, we will not only meet the priorities of Australian and Chinese wheat breeding programs, but also contribute to the world demand for food security and sustainability,” he says.

The other project partners include InterGrain Pty Ltd; Chinese Academy of Sciences; Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences; and Beijing Genomics Institute. The work is supported by the Australian government’s Global Innovation Linkage program.


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Header image: Professor Guijun Yan is improving wheat in China and Australia (Credit: University of Western Australia).