Feeding Millions of People Motivates UNL Grains Breeder

By Mary Garbacz

The work of P. Stephen Baenziger feeds three million people every year that otherwise might not be fed. That's what got him into agriculture and that's what has motivated him every day of the last 24 years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Baenziger, who is the Eugene W. Price Distinguished Professor of Small Grains Breeding and Genetics, mainly develops new varieties and cultivars of wheat, but also breeds triticale and barley. There is one public small grain breeder for the state of Nebraska; that person is hired by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"Nebraska, to me, is the greatest wheat-breeding position in the country," he said, noting that historically, the greatest breeders of the previous generation were at Nebraska. "It's a great place to breed, it's a great tradition, great germplasm, wonderful environments, wonderful people to work with," he said. He accepted the job at Nebraska because it involved two things he loves: breeding crops to feed the world, and teaching.

Nebraska is in the top 10 of wheat-producing states in the country and wheat ranks as the fourth-largest crop produced in the state. "In 2008, we produced about a 73.5 million-bushel crop," he said. "Then, you figure that the average person eats somewhere around 150 pounds of wheat a year, so that 73.5 million-bushel crop, which is roughly 4.5 billion pounds of wheat, means we could feed roughly 29 to 30 million people from the Nebraska wheat crop. So, that's a lot of satisfaction when you're working on a crop that could feed one-tenth of America," Baenziger said.

It isn't all about quantity, though; it's also about quality, and that includes the growing market for organic products. The wheat team at UNL includes specialists in breeding, plant pathology, entomology, irrigation, dryland, pesticides and herbicides, and quality. "You want to produce what you can sell, not just sell whatever you produce," Baenziger said.

"You want to make a quality loaf of bread."

Stephen Baenziger
P. Stephen Baenziger in a Nebraska wheat field. Photo by Aaron Franco.


Improved Science Takes Time, But Reaps Financial Benefits

"My guess is that the State of Nebraska probably spends $1.5 to $2 million dollars on the wheat project, but they're getting a $30 million return at the farm gate from what we've done. So, I think if you can get a 15 to 1 return on your investment, most people would say that's probably okay," Baenziger said.

It takes 12 years to develop a new wheat variety, Baenziger said, but it pays off. Genetic improvements in Nebraska wheat have improved bushels per acre by more than 20 percent since 1966, he said. The 73.5-million-bushel wheat crop that was produced in Nebraska in 2008 had a dollar value of nearly $300 million, he said, which means that 20 percent of its worth is due to genetics. That means that $60 million is because of wheat breeders like Baenziger. About half of that $60 million directly benefits the farmers who produce the crop. The other 50 percent benefits the value chain, such as the processors who produce flour, then the bread or other products that contain wheat.

"The good news is we're getting a little better," Baenziger said. Statistics prove that since 2008, genetic improvements have increased the value of the wheat crop by about 23 percent instead of 20 percent. "Our new varieties are very well accepted and our yields have gone up. So the $30 million a year is a very low estimate, and that's just in Nebraska. A lot of our varieties are grown in South Dakota, Wyoming, parts of Kansas and part of Colorado, so in the region, our impact is much larger," he added.

Whenever you produce a plant, it has its own genetics and its own environment, Baenziger said. Environment is where the plant is grown and includes such things as weather, whether the crop was fertilized, whether the crop was sprayed for weeds and whether insects and diseases were controlled. Environment also includes such things as conservation tillage - whether the soil was tilled or whether the no-till method was used to prevent soil erosion.

Triticale, Barley and...Rice?

Baenziger also works to improve other small grains, including triticale, barley and rice.

Triticale can be grown in much tougher conditions than wheat, Baenziger said, and is a natural for animal feed in areas where it's too cold to grow corn. Triticale is also a good crop for biomass, which uses organic plant and animal material as renewable fuel sources.

Barley, he said, is used mainly for animal feed, but also for forage. It doesn't have the winter hardiness of triticale, so is grown in the slightly milder climates in Kansas and Oklahoma. "We're the last barley breeder in the Great Plains, so we do it because we think the growers need choices. As a tenured professor at a university, you can do that. That's why we do the other two crops," he said.

But rice?

Baenziger is a trustee for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which is located in the Philippines. "I am a wheat breeder and the breeding techniques I use in wheat are very similar to the techniques they use in rice," he said, adding that he is the only breeder on the IRRI Board of Trustees and also the only American. "That's because the U.S. has made a commitment to foreign aid and their interests need to be represented, demographically, on the board," he said.

Cereal crops are the majority crop for feeding the world, Baenziger said, and each crop is represented by an international organization. In addition to IRRI in the Philippines, the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement is located in Mexico and sorghum, which is the other major global crop and also important in Nebraska, is represented by an international organization based in India.

Funding Sources

Breeding new varieties can be costly; salaries are paid by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Additional funding comes from the Nebraska Wheat Board, which has provided funding since 1986 through the wheat checkoff program. The Nebraska Wheat Board also used checkoff funds to pay for a quality laboratory. "We can never thank the Wheat Board enough," he said. "The growers have always been a huge mainstay." However, Baenziger said millions of dollars in federal grants provide funding for basic research, because "we never want the growers to pay for research that doesn't directly impact them short-term; we don't think that's a good use of their money." Additional funds come from other associations and from corporations. "We are inclusive; we think that corporate America is part of 'our people' too," he said.

Baenziger grew up in the 1960s and was influenced by the government's efforts to eradicate hunger in the United States. "I went to college to be a human nutritionist, but it became obvious to me that if I were going to work in human nutrition, I would be defining a problem without providing the mechanisms to solve it," he said.

"I got into agriculture because I wanted to work in feeding people, and what I've learned is that 80 million to a billion people go to bed hungry every night," he said. "And so, my goal is to continue to provide the world the global wherewithal to be able to feed ourselves whenever we choose to feed ourselves. I hope I will live that long to be able to see that day."