Wheat scientists gathered in Orlando this week for the annual meetings of the National Wheat Improvement Committee (NWIC) and the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative (USWBSI).
NWIC is an organization of public and private wheat researchers from around the United States, and USWBSI is one of the premier wheat-related research collaborations, funded by USDA. Both meetings are important opportunities for researchers from different parts of the country and different specialties to meet in person and discuss common challenges, emerging threats and other issues that impact their work.
The NWIC meeting on Monday was well-attended, with 35 researchers and growers participating. They focused much of their time together on reviewing the progress of ongoing programs and challenges faced by regional, national and international wheat science initiatives.
An important topic of conversation was the continued concerns about decreased research funding from universities and the federal government, including the potential threat of federal sequestration cuts.
At present, these funding concerns are showing up most prominently in research positions that are being left unfilled, some of which will never be filled. Growers at the meeting reported that universities in their areas are becoming increasingly reliant on grower dollars for wheat research, which come primarily through state checkoffs and royalties for newly-purchased seed.
Despite these concerns, NWIC members are also seeing more opportunities for international collaboration and a more diverse group of organizations becoming involved in wheat research, including expanded funding from USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
There also continues to be a large need for more qualified wheat scientists, in both the public programs and private industry. This expertise gap is being met with innovations in training, which is an important part of the T-CAP project in which 59 graduate students are participating. New and established researchers alike are becoming more aware of the need to talk about their work to the general public and the media, for which attendees at this week’s meeting received some training during the sessions.
Also at the meeting, scientists from each wheat growing region and private company reported on their work in the last year. Several regions suffered from extreme weather in the last growing season, which impacted disease and insect pressure, particularly rusts, which continues to be reported on more acres. Researchers from a number of regions reported acres being down overall in their areas.
Attendees also gave progress reports on several ongoing wheat research initiatives, including the T-CAP project funded by USDA; an international wheat research initiative created by the G-20 group of nations; the Wheat Yield Network; and the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative.
University and private scientists were joined at the meeting by several growers, including Ron Perry from North Carolina, Michael Thomas from Nebraska, John Weinand from North Dakota and Mike Miller from Washington, who was able to join by phone.
NWIC leaders were also pleased to announce that grower groups in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Minnesota have contributed funds to help offset the organization’s costs in the coming year. NWIC has operated without a budget until now.
The Scab Forum, the annual meeting of the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative (USWBSI), followed the NWIC meetings, Tuesday through Thursday. USWBSI focuses exclusively on research to combat the disease Fusarium head blight, commonly known as scab.
During the meeting Art Brandli from Warroad, Minn., who is the group’s co-chair, encouraged researchers to use the Scab Forum as an opportunity to dream a little and to think outside of their comfort zones in their own research area. He urged them to continually refer to the mission of the Initiative and how it relates to the needs of the stakeholders who are growing and using wheat and barley.
Weinand was the keynote speaker at this year’s conference, discussing his experience with managing the fungus, saying he has won some battles but the war is still ongoing.
Another speaker, Chris Bowley from Wheat Tech, Inc., in Russellville, Ky., spoke about how the potential for scab is increasing each year with changing environments and increased corn plantings, which are conduits for the disease.
Speakers pointed out that while scab is thought of as something that emerged in the 1990s, it had existed previously but more episodically. In the past two decades, the problem with scab has increased overall, though research into new genetics and management practices has provided farmers with tools to combat the disease effectively in years with moderate occurrences.
Continued funding for the USWBSI is contingent on appropriations from Congress, and meeting attendees expressed concern that delays in passing a final funding bill for 2013 will subsequently delay distribution of funds for this critical research.
NAWG is an active participant in both NWIC and USWBSI, and Director of Government Affairs for Research and Technology Jane DeMarchi attended this week’s meetings.
More about the USWBSI and the proceedings at this week’s meeting is at www.scabusa.org.
More about NWIC, which is managed by the National Wheat Foundation and NAWG, is at www.wheatworld.org/research.