Field Insights

The Future of Wheat Hybrids

Hybrid wheat is expected to offer higher yield potential and more efficient use of resources.

It seemed a nearly impossible idea: hybridized wheat sold across North America in the first half of the 21st century. Wheat self-pollinates, so crossing it with other varieties has proved challenging. Still, what began as a promise in 2010 may be poised to become a reality in the early 2020s. By combining a broad genetic portfolio with a globe-spanning, prestigious research team, Syngenta is developing hybrid wheat that shows the potential of increased yield and sustainability.

“In the next five years, we’ll be targeting launches for growers across major wheat growing regions,” says Darcy Pawlik, head, cereals portfolio at Syngenta, North America. “When you combine the strong agronomic characteristics of our wheat portfolio, it will result in a very nice package for the farmer to take advantage of.”

Though it’s the top crop planted globally by acreage, wheat remains one of the few crops without a successful hybridized variety on the market in North America. But Carlos Iglesias, North American head of wheat seed development at Syngenta, and his team may soon add wheat to the list of crops that reap the benefits of hybridization, which can include improved, consistent yield and quality.

Riding the Cutting Edge

The secret to the wheat seed development team’s success is a process known as doubled-haploid technology.

Iglesias’ team uses corn to pollinate specially selected wheat plants. Because corn is distantly related to wheat, its pollen can induce the plant to make a seed, but that seed will only have one copy of the wheat’s genes—a haploid.

“We rescue that seed and treat it with a product that allows for normal duplication of the wheat parent’s genes,” Iglesias says. “Right away, we end up with a plant that is homozygous, which means it has pure genes from a single parent with the traits we want to see.”

These traits include high, consistent yield and vigor, high protein content, and robust root systems for better water use and nitrogen efficiency—all of which can add up to a greater potential return on investment.

“One great aspect of this technology is that doubled-haploid technology is natural,” Iglesias says. “We were able to take this process from nature and use it as a tool to work in our favor. There is absolutely no genetic modification in this whole process.”

Traditional breeding practices can take up to 12 years to produce a desirable cross. With doubled-haploid technology, Iglesias’ team can whittle down tens of thousands of wheat lines to a few, with the most positive attributes in just two years. The ability to explore the vast array of traits from multiple parents enhances the capacity of Syngenta to provide a superior product.


Because we’re using multiple lines of wheat instead of just one, we should be able to unlock some of the diversity and get more improvements faster.

Darcy Pawlik head, cereals portfolio at Syngenta, North America

“We continue to stay on track from a development perspective for all the breeding characteristics growers look for, such as insect tolerance, disease tolerance, harvestability and resiliency against drought,” Pawlik says. “We expect hybridized wheat to possibly amplify these effects by using multiple parents.”

That’s really the key with hybrids, Pawlik explains: “Because we’re using multiple lines of wheat instead of just one, we should be able to unlock some of the diversity and get more improvements faster.” When added up, all of these characteristics can potentially maximize a farmer’s return on investment.

Commitment to Growers

In addition to these amplified effects, hybridized wheat is expected to have an increased sustainability score by producing more bushels, with the same amount of water and nitrogen, per acre planted. Sustainability, as it is referred to today, was not an initial goal for Syngenta when the hybrid wheat program began in 2010, Pawlik says. But as the program developed, customers talked—and Syngenta listened.

“Sustainability comes up as an issue that growers and consumers, in general, really care about,” says Pawlik. “As a result, we’re trying to more efficiently develop crops that can do more with less, whether that means less water, nitrogen or land. We want growers to get more yield for the same amount, or less, of their input.”

Exceeding Expectations

The North American cereals research team is one of the world’s most experienced, offering valuable insights into how hybrids respond to diverse weather and disease conditions. “We have experts, who have been developing wheat varieties for 30 years, and they’re working with a new generation of specialists, who bring the most up-to-date skills and technology to the table,” Iglesias says. “We’re lucky to have such a ripe, well-integrated educational environment.”

It’s also an environment that fosters a close connection to the real world of agriculture. “Our team gets to participate with the sales and marketing end of wheat as well, allowing us to hear feedback from farmers to help in future decision making,” Iglesias says. “It is invaluable input.”

Syngenta stands above its peers in its hybrid technology investment, and that investment is paying off. “We’re exceeding our expectations in what we hoped to see in factors like increased yield and performance,” Pawlik says. “We’re bringing to market a differentiated product from varietal wheats available today. This will be a step change in wheat production.”

Iglesias agrees. “We are seeing a qualitative jump in yield,” he says. “And we continue to aim for higher gains as our program matures.”