The ear he is holding in his hand is “nearly 10,000 years old”: it is the ancestor of our common wheat, still grown in the greenhouses of the Limagrain group, the world's 4th largest seed company, in central France, where researchers are working to make the champion that will resist climate change.
Bernard Duperrier delicately holds the still green stem. The breeder, a wheat specialist for 40 years, 20 of which spent with the international giant, regularly draws from the seed safes of the group, born at the foot of the Auvergne volcanoes.
He is looking for the right recipe: the one that will give wheat resistant to diseases and pests, favored by increasingly mild winters, robust in the face of lack of water and which will retain its taste and nutritional qualities.
He describes the delicate maneuver of crossbreeding which consists in first “castrating the ears which have male and female organs”, then “grabbing the stamens” of another variety and “dropping the pollen” they contain on the ear to cross.
It takes hundreds of tries to hope for a promising track.
In the so-called “tunnel” greenhouse where dozens of varieties are grown, at the Chappes research center (center), Bernard Duperrier works on his collection of wheat: there are bearded, dwarf, green or bluish, hard to make semolina or pasta, tender for bread.
As in a library, there are young trials with an uncertain destiny, sure values that have entered the world agricultural heritage, such as the Apache varieties, Bearded Red or Poulard from Australia, and 10,000 year old treasures.
At the bottom of the greenhouse, a wheat from the bottom of the Neolithic period flourishes. “It is one of the ancestors of our wheat”, a small spelled ('triticum monococcum') born in Mesopotamia and which, by crossing with other grasses, gave soft wheat, the cereal most consumed today in world with rice, says the breeder.
At Chappes, some 400 crosses are made each year. Élisabeth Chanliaud, director of research at Limagrain, explains this selection process, which takes “ten years to arrive at the crowning of the champion”.
“Adapted to the north”
“We will look for an ancestor of wheat, cross it with another variety, generate around 80,000 descendants. The game consists of eliminating 80% of the descendants to select the best performers in breadmaking and the most resilient. Then we multiply the descendants and we evaluate them,” she continues.
To go faster, Limagrain has developed “crop chambers”, greenhouses where the process is accelerated by adjusting the temperatures, the alternation of day and night or the water supply. The researchers have also saved time thanks to “molecular marking”, a labeling of genes which makes it possible to identify the most resistant and to speed up sorting.
“We thus obtain six generations of varieties in two years instead of once a year”, emphasizes Ms. Chanliaud.
In the trial fields near the greenhouses, Bernard Duperrier tests the resistance of the last descendants to diseases such as Fusarium wilt, caused by a fungus which withers the stems to the ears.
The stakes are high for Limagrain, present in all links of the wheat sector, from seed production to bread making (Jacquet factories).
In 2022, the group (2, 1 billion euros in turnover) has reinvested 275 million in research and multiplies partnerships with research centers and institutes, including Inrae in France, Embrapa in Brazil or, recently, the Gene Bank of Ghana .
“This research is inscribed in our history”, affirms the president of the group Sébastien Vidal, himself a farmer. “Here we are wedged between two mountain ranges, far from the grain ports. Getting our grain out was more expensive so we bet on creating value.”
To assess the different farming systems (according to crop rotations, tillage, water supply, fertilizers…) in the face of climate change, Limagrain has just launched “the matrix”: 49 hectares where arable crops will be tested for twelve years. Among them, ten varieties of a wheat that will have “grown in the south” and that the group hopes to see tomorrow “adapted to the north”.