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Montana wheat industry pins hopes on new university plant geneticist

BOZEMAN, Mont. -- It's been three years since grain farmers pledged $5 million for a cutting-edge grain scientist at Montana State University, and last week MSU delivered with a world-class geneticist from an international university.

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BOZEMAN, Mont. -- It’s been three years since grain farmers pledged $5 million for a cutting-edge grain scientist at Montana State University, and last week MSU delivered with a world-class geneticist from an international university.

Hikmet Budak, the American-educated leader of plant genetics and genomics at Sabanci University in Istanbul, Turkey, will be MSU’s first endowed plant sciences chair. The hire comes as the state’s wheat industry struggles with environmental challenges and battles better researched crops for acres.

Wheat research in the United States, which largely takes place at universities, has lagged behind private research of crops like corn, soybeans and canola conducted by companies like Monsanto and DuPont. Consequently, wheat hasn’t benefited much from new insect and disease resistance science that has attracted farmers to other crops.

Farmers said the $5 million endowed chair at MSU will help wheat’s fortunes and that Budak seems like the right guy, partly because he comes from a part of the world where publicly funded research is the norm.

“What I was really impressed with was he is looped in with the European research community on plant sciences,” said Lochiel Edwards, a Big Sandy farmer and Montana Grains Foundation board member, group crucial to raising funds for the chairmanship. “What attracted him to the search committee was some of the cutting-edge science that he was involved in in Turkey and also Nebraska.”

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Much of that cutting-edge science involves “gene editing,” the practice of altering a plant without introducing new genetic material.

Gene editing is less controversial than genetically modifying organisms with genes from a different species. In parts of the world, GMO crops aren’t considered safe, and in the United States a battle rages over whether foods with GMO ingredients should be labeled. There are regulations in anti-GMO countries that make food created with the science difficult, if not impossible, to market.

Gene editing doesn’t violate anti-GMO regulations, yet allows biotechnology to keep improving food production by cutting off unwanted pieces of DNA.

“One of the areas in the world that is really doing cutting-edge research is the European Union. We were really interested in this gene editing technique,” said Lola Raska, Montana Grain Growers Association executive vice president, who was part of the selection committee. “It’s not considered genetic modification.”

Among the traits Montana grain farmers hope to see Montana State University develop is resistance to wheat stem sawfly, an insect that lays its eggs inside the wheat stem eventually destroying the plant before harvest. Sawfly damage in Montana costs farmers $80 to $100 million a year in damage.

Related Topics: WHEATCROPS
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