Semi-Dwarf Wheat: The Game Changer

Semi-Dwarf Wheat: The Game Changer

July 6, 2016
Investment & Innovation

Semi-dwarf wheat is the dominant variety of wheat grown today, accounting for about 99 percent of global wheat acreage. It was developed in Mexico in the mid-1940s-50s by Dr. Norman Borlaug, geneticist, plant pathologist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, as a way to increase wheat yields and make the country more self-sufficient in food production.

Borlaug directed the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico, a joint undertaking by the Mexican government and U.S. Rockefeller Foundation. He and his team were successful in finding a high-yielding, short-strawed, disease-resistant wheat that was adapted to local conditions.

This wheat has several advantages over normal wheat, which is tall and wavy. The latter blows in the wind, and if grains at the top of the plant get too heavy, the plant will fall over. Once grain heads touch the ground, the plant becomes unusable. Semi-dwarf wheat is a shorter plant with a stronger stalk, which will not fall over in the wind or if the grain head gets heavy. It also takes less time for the plant to grow to the height needed to produce grain. Plus, the shorter, tougher stalk can be harvested by combines and other heavy machinery, making wheat harvesting less labor-intensive. Moreover, Borlaug’s variety is resistant to wheat rust (except for a new strain today called ‘Ug99’) and it can handle heavy amounts of fertilizer.

By 1956, Mexico became self-sufficient in wheat production thanks to semi-dwarf wheat. This led to the variety’s introduction in the mid-1960s in India and Pakistan, where production doubled as a result. Later, similar strains for rice and other cereals were developed in Asia. Hence, the “Green Revolution” began – a movement credited with saving up to 1 billion people from starvation.