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Developing Wheat Hybrids to Feed a Hungry World
Stephen Baenziger, a professor and plant sciences expert at UNL, is changing the game when it comes to wheat. His work creating wheat hybrids that are more resilient—and more productive—will play a major role when it comes to feeding a hungry, growing world. And, given that agriculture is one of Nebraska’s biggest industries, Baenziger‘s work makes a huge difference within the state.
After training as an undergrad at Harvard and receiving his master’s and doctoral degrees at Purdue, Baenziger worked for the United States Department of Agriculture for eight years and Monsanto for three years. Over the course of his 34-year career at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, he has developed 64 new cultivars of wheat, barley and triticale, a hybrid of wheat and rye. He’s also developed key partnerships with private companies, crop improvement associations, seed dealers, farmers, millers and bakers.
Whether he’s in the lab, the field or a crop improvement meeting, Baenziger is focused on building partnerships. That philosophy has shaped his small-grains breeding program, which is recognized globally and throughout Nebraska, where farmers know him by name. They also know his wheat varieties by name—more than 50% of Nebraska’s wheat acres are planted with varieties from Baenziger’s program.
“There’s an old African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” said Baenziger, professor of agronomy and horticulture. “There are lots of interlinking pieces that a complex program needs to keep it at the cutting edge. It’s like putting a 1000-piece puzzle together, and every piece has a fit.”
Producing Wheat for a Growing World
The world’s population is predicted to surge to 9 billion people in 2050. We will need production gains in wheat to match this growth and ensure there’s enough food to eat.
“Everybody always talks about the nine billion people we're going to have in 2050,” says Baenziger. “But with increased prosperity, they’re going to eat like 10-12 billion people. Two-thirds of increased wheat consumption is due to population growth; one-third is due to prosperity. So, the task is even more daunting than what we think.”
Experts estimate that wheat productivity will have to improve by 1.4% to 1.7% annually to meet worldwide demand. The current improvement is between 0% and 1% annually. To meet the projected demand, new approaches are needed. “If we keep doing what we’re doing now, we don't have a plan to succeed, we have a plan to fail,” says Baenziger. “We’re leaving no stone unturned trying to make a better future for our growers.”
Baenziger was awarded $650,000 in July 2020 to increase wheat productivity through developing hybrid wheat varieties. Hybrids perform well under adverse weather conditions, which reduces losses and increases yields—and can make a major financial difference for farmers.
“In a state like Nebraska with its diverse climates, hybrids are much more climate-resilient than our pure lines,” says Baenziger. “For example, at North Platte where we had a drought, we had over 200 random hybrids outperform the best commercial line available under stressful climates. I often think that for risk management alone, we should be growing hybrid wheat.”
Pursuing Research, Pursuing His Dreams
“When people hear the common prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ I hope they remember there’s a wheat team at the University of Nebraska that works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year to make that prayer come true.”
After more than three decades at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Baenziger will be retiring in May 2021. He is grateful to the University for allowing him to have the flexibility, freedom and resources to pursue his research and dreams. “I think too few faculty thank their institutions for letting them be the scientist they want to be,” he mused. And, true to form, he is also grateful for partnerships and teamwork. “When people they hear the common prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ I hope they remember there’s a wheat team at the University of Nebraska that works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year to make that prayer come true.”
Breeding wheat takes patience and time. From the moment Baenziger makes a cross to the moment the line is released, it takes between seven to twelve years. “When I make a cross, I think of all the potential that it can have,” he says. “When I see the progeny of that cross out in a field, I’ll remember whether the sun was shining, whether it was windy, where it was in the field. And when the crosses make a variety, and that variety is grown on millions of acres—I remember when I held all the seed of that line in the palm of my hand.”
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