DuPont and its Pioneer Hi-Bred agricultural seed unit said a hybrid wheat technology project has been added to its roster of crop research programs that are advancing into deeper development. DuPont currently is largely focused on genetic improvements to corn and soybeans, as well as enhanced canola and rice.
The company is looking at using biotechnology, along with other breeding tools, to create wheat that is more disease resistant and also wheat that yields more and is hardy in drought conditions, John Soper, DuPont Pioneer vice president of crop genetics/research and development, said in an interview.
Though biotech corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops have been in the market for years, no company has yet commercialized a biotech wheat.
Corn remains the key crop for DuPont Pioneer, but the company sees wheat as a good long-term bet, according to Soper.
"Corn is still our major crop, but this is one of the crops that we think is critical to build the future pipeline for DuPont," he said. "We have an opportunity now with the technology... to really take wheat to a new level and it could be an important part of our long-term future."
The wheat work is based in Pioneer's main R&D facilities in Johnston, Iowa.
DuPont has long offered conventional soft red winter wheat seeds but Soper said the wheat work they are doing would be "broadly applicable" to various classes of wheat and to many other countries in addition to North America.
The company is still at least a decade away from a commercialized new wheat, Soper said. Researchers have identified the genes they want and are now starting to make transformations and figure out which combinations work best, he said.
"The key thing is that we are looking for ways to grow our business in the long term. Wheat is one of the largest crops in the world. It's a staple food for about 35 percent of the world's population."
Soper said despite challenges to rival biotech wheat research programs, he sees acceptance growing over time.
DuPont rival Monsanto Co. nearly brought a biotech wheat to market but shelved the herbicide-resistant crop in 2004 amid broad opposition from buyers of U.S. wheat and from U.S. wheat growers who feared losing sales. The company announced it was restarting wheat research in 2009.
Researchers in Australia, Dow AgroSciences, a unit of Dow Chemical, Syngenta, and others have said they are also researching genetic improvements for wheat.