Partnership Produces Harvest of Rewards: Nebraska Wheat Growers Presidential Chair, A Partnership That Buys Time, Results

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The desire to feed people is the main reason P. Stephen Baenziger decided to go into wheat breeding. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemical sciences from Harvard University, then master’s and doctoral degrees in plant breeding and genetics from Purdue University. He just knew he could make a difference in the world by breeding stronger, more drought- and disease-tolerant wheat varieties. If he could do that, he knew more people could eat every day.

He knew that the world depended on science to improve and increase the world’s food supply. He also knew that scientific research takes money from many sources.

Baenziger is distinguished professor of agronomy and horticulture at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, specializing in small grains breeding and genetics. He also holds the Nebraska Wheat Growers Presidential Chair, endowed in 2011 by Bayer CropScience with a $2 million gift to the university. The position will exist in perpetuity, Baenziger said, and will transfer to his successors.

The future of food

It is widely publicized that by 2050, the world’s population is likely to exceed 9 billion, compared with just more than 7 billion in 2016. But, Baenziger said, those 9 billion people won’t eat like 9 billion people today; they will eat like the equivalent of 12 billion people today.


“We hope those 9 billion people are more prosperous than they are today,” Baenziger said. “As you become more prosperous, more wheat is consumed. Bread is a convenience food, as opposed to crops like rice, which has to be boiled, or corn, which has to be milled and edible products made from it.” People also like animal products, such as meat, eggs and milk, so more feed grains will go into animal production, he explained.

If people are going to be fed the way they would like to be fed and the way they deserve to be fed, Baenziger said, “agriculture will have to be much more efficient, much more productive than we’ve ever been in the past to feed the future.”

Yes, it is possible, but it is going to be difficult, he said. “Winston Churchill said ‘never have so many asked so much of so few,’ and I think that’s where agriculture is right now.” In times of surplus, people tend to take food for granted, he said, but the future won’t allow for that luxury. Instead, there may need to be changes in both behavior and consumption. “We will accommodate the future, but we would rather have the future we would like than just what we can settle for,” he said.


Wheat as a crop has advantages for agricultural producers, Baenziger said. It grows with less water than many other crops; it is an appropriate crop for a cooler climate in a higher elevation; it is a good rotational crop as a winter annual. A winter wheat crop breaks up the life cycle of weeds producers are fighting in their corn and soybean fields. In addition, a wheat planting after a summer annual gets a producer 12 months of production instead of just four or five with a summer annual, he explained.

“Wheat as a human-consumed food is considered a premium grain because people always will pay more for what they feed themselves than for what they will feed to an animal,” he said. Globally, about 20 percent of the world’s calories and 20 percent of the world’s protein comes from wheat.

Partnering: essential

The university’s partnerships with Bayer CropScience and with other local and international companies are making it possible to fund essential agricultural research. There is increased competition for fewer dollars from traditional funding sources, such as federal grants. Diversifying funding sources makes it possible to conduct the scientific research that affects the world’s future food supply.

Not only that — the public-private partnerships make it possible for scientists to choose the projects they study. For example, interest from the Nebraska Wheat Growers Presidential Chair endowment allows Baenziger and his team to pursue exploratory projects with greater potential for payoff, he said. The funding also will pay the salaries of graduate students and allow the team to select the students’ projects, which sometimes is not possible with specific grant-funded projects.

Bayer CropScience, Baenziger said, has specific strengths in cereal grains, including wheat; the company also is a leader in cotton, canola and hybrid rice. However, the company wanted to expand its portfolio to include wheat breeding, Baenziger said, and since Nebraska has 80 years of wheat breeding experience, the company chose to partner with Nebraska, providing the research funds for the future of wheat.

It benefits both UNL scientists and Bayer CropScience, Baenziger said. Since universities conduct research for the public good, the Presidential Chair agreement outlined a sharing of wheat germplasm. The university retains ownership of the germplasm, but Bayer CropScience has the right to use it and create new products from it.

The substantial gift meant time saved for the company.

“Plant breeding is a slow, methodical process,” Baenziger said, so this partnership bought the time necessary to conduct the research without having to start from scratch. “It generally takes 12 years before a variety is released and even with some really advanced techniques, it’s seven years,” he said. “Bayer CropScience was willing to come to us and we were willing to share on a non-exclusive basis our germplasm. It allowed them to get into the wheat-breeding business early with advanced generation lines and that saved them time. We could have done this with any company,” Baenziger said.

Royce Schaneman, executive director of the Nebraska Wheat Board, is pleased with the agreement and with the name of the Nebraska Wheat Growers Presidential Chair. “We are so pleased that Bayer recognized the 40-plus years of commitment to the wheat growers of Nebraska by investing in our future,” he said.

“We can tell this relationship really goes two ways. There are relationships between public and private partners, but this is one of the best I’ve seen,” Schaneman said. “Nebraska signed a fair and honest deal, and it’s only going to get better.”

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