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AGRICULTURE REPORT – January 15, 2002: Growing Wheat - 2002-01-14

This is the VOA Special English AGRICULTURE REPORT.

Studies show that there will be nine-thousand-million people in the world by the year Two-Thousand-Fifty. The United Nations has warned that many countries will have to increase food production to satisfy their population demands.

Some agriculture experts say increasing grain production on the world’s richest soils may not be enough. They note that production of wheat also must be increased on less productive soils.

One concern is the growing amount of harmful metals in farmland soils. The metal aluminum, for example, restricts growth of wheat plants when acid levels in the soil are high. Aluminum particles are mainly found just below the topsoil.

Aluminum restricts plant growth on more than thirty percent of all farmland worldwide. In the United States, almost thirty-five-million hectares of farmland are affected.

Adding another substance, lime, is one way to reduce the acidity of soils that have too much aluminum. But lime is costly to transport long distances. Another method is to develop plants strong enough to grow in such soils.

J. Perry Gustafson is a genetic expert with the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Agriculture Department. He is helping plant growers develop new kinds of wheat plants with genes that will help the plants grow in high-aluminum soils.

Mister Gustafson works with the Plant Genetics Research office in Columbia, Missouri. Scientists there have been studying the genetic structure of wheat. They have identified the area of a gene that resists aluminum. They say the aluminum-resistant gene is between two marker genes that are close to each other.

Wheat growers can now choose plants that have these markers. The Department of Agriculture say this process may reduce by half the time required to develop a new kind of wheat. Currently, ten to fifteen years are necessary.

The genetic marker was identified in a wheat plant native to Brazil. No other wheat grows as well in high-aluminum soils.

Mister Gustafson says that borrowing genes from another grain, rye, may be the best hope for wheat to survive in acidic, high-aluminum soils. He has found genetic markers in rye plants that are closely linked to the aluminum-resistant genes. He hopes the markers can be used to help move the desirable rye genes into wheat.

This VOA Special English AGRICULTURE REPORT was written by George Grow.