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Aust wheat remains one of our most important industries

07 December, 2004

The morning toast relies on it. The mid-morning snack is made from it. Dinner could be another variety altogether. And some people drive their cars with it.

Wheat is not only the driving force of Australian and international food, it is the centre of one of the nation's most important industries.

The Australian wheat industry was built upon the efforts of William Farrer, an Englishman forced to the Antipodes in the 1880s because of his problems with tuberculosis.

It was his research around the Canberra region, trying to create a new variety of wheat better suited to Australia's dry conditions, that laid the basis for the grains industry.

More than a century after the creation of his much-heralded Federation wheat breed, scientists in Canberra and elsewhere are carrying on his work to take the country beyond the 21st century.

Not all wheat, a grass first used as a food source more than 6,000 years ago in the Middle East, is created equal.

Some thrive in wet and cold conditions. Others, such as those developed by William Farrer, mature early to avoid rusts and other diseases.

And not every wheat produces the same loaf.

Some wheats produce flour that is great for a traditional damper. Others are more suited for what goes into our biscuits and pastries. And another variety, durum, is used solely to make pasta.

Richard Richards is the program leader for high performance crops at CSIRO Plant Industries in Canberra, where he oversees a swarm of glasshouses housing thousands of old and new strains of wheat.

His ultimate aim is to create wheats that increase the amount of grain taken from every hectare cultivated in Australia.

And for every minor improvement in yield, there is a huge benefit to the farmer and the economy.

"The value of breeding is immense. If we could improve the yield by just one per cent of the wheat crop in Australia, then that's worth $50 million in additional income to farmers, to Australia because we're exporting it, and it is basically at no cost to the farmer," he said.

Dr Richards and his fellow researchers draw upon work across the globe in order to find a new wheat that could be an improvement on current varieties.

Durum wheat, which demands a price premium, is a case now being explored by Dr Richards.

All durum wheats dislike saline soils which, unfortunately, are expanding in Australia.

Dr Richards and his team, drawing on an ancient wheat that was grown in the Middle East, are now close to releasing a durum wheat that will not turn up at its toes at the hint of a salty soil.

"We identified unique genes, genes that have never been recognised before, in this old, wild ancient wheat for a new mechanism of salt tolerance, so we're introducing that into Australian durum wheats," he said.

"The early indications are that the yield benefit in salty soils is quite substantial, and could really improve production."

Although farmers in Australia largely use 25 varieties, literally hundreds are grown each year, depending on the climate and soil of the region.

There are about six wheat breeding programs in Australia, each chasing down a different burrow for a result.

The time from coming up with an idea and a new variety can be long - around 12 years.

In the case of Dr Richards and CSIRO, there is a great deal of interest in finding wheats that could be grown in Australia's high rainfall zones.

Australian wheats average around two tonnes of grain a hectare. Overseas wheats grown in high rainfall zones produce up to 14 tonnes a hectare.

"You can literally sleep on this wheat, it is so thick, and if we could get that growing in Australia that would be a huge boost," Dr Richard said.

But for farmers, the wait for such wheats - and then finding the right ones for their properties - could be a long one.

Peter Reading heads the Grains Research and Development Corporation, which spends about $25 million a year on supporting the search for new varieties.

He said one of the biggest problems was trying to ensure research did not follow down a certain path for science's sake, but for the sake of the farmer in the paddock.

"You want to make sure you come up with a wheat that helps farmers, that gives them a competitive edge," he said.

Research is going into all sorts of different types of wheats - wheats that germinate quickly and so quash competition from weeds, wheats that do better in saline soils, wheats that might offer health benefits to consumers.

 Reading said one problem for farmers is trying to determine which wheat is best for them.

"It's going to be a major area in the future, with farmers wanting an independent analysis so they can weigh up the claims by breeders and companies and test the performances of these breeds," he said.

At the other end of the industry is the nation's monopoly wheat exporter, AWB Ltd, which must find markets for the 22 million tonnes of wheat produced annually.

The company benefits because years of wheat breeding, and the right farming practices, have resulted in Australian wheat having one of the highest milling extraction rates in the world.

Milling extraction is roughly how much wheat you get from your grain.

Of a tonne of raw Australian wheat, about 75 per cent becomes flour. American varieties of wheat, by comparison, have an extraction rate closer to 70 per cent.

Water retention in certain varieties of wheat is important. For wheats used in pasta, however, buyers want wheat that readily repels water.

A spokeswoman for AWB said colour was also a vital characteristic.
"If you're selling fresh noodles, then you don't want your noodles to go grey and dull a day after making them," she said.

"We look for wheats that are bright, white and creamy, that can hold their colour."

And all of it starts with breeders like Richard Richards sitting down to come up with a wheat to solve a certain problem.

Literally thousands of wheat plants are produced, all subtly different, to find the one.

"Sometimes you just want to cry when something doesn't work the way you thought it would," he said.

"But then sometimes it means cracking the champagne because it has."

Maybe a wheat from which champagne could be made will be the next to be planted across the nation.

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