Breeding improves wheat productivity under contrasting agrochemical input levels


The world cropping area for wheat exceeds that of any other crop, and high grain yields in intensive wheat cropping systems are essential for global food security. Breeding has raised yields dramatically in high-input production systems; however, selection under optimal growth conditions is widely believed to diminish the adaptive capacity of cultivars to less optimal cropping environments. Here, we demonstrate, in a large-scale study spanning five decades of wheat breeding progress in western Europe, where grain yields are among the highest worldwide, that breeding for high performance in fact enhances cultivar performance not only under optimal production conditions but also in production systems with reduced agrochemical inputs. New cultivars incrementally accumulated genetic variants conferring favourable effects on key yield parameters, disease resistance, nutrient use efficiency, photosynthetic efficiency and grain quality. Combining beneficial, genome-wide haplotypes could help breeders to more efficiently exploit available genetic variation, optimizing future yield potential in more sustainable production systems.

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Fig. 1: Fifty years of breeding progress in European winter wheat.
Fig. 2: Temporal trends in grain yield performance and detrimental haplotype counts across 50 years of wheat breeding progress.
Fig. 3: Subgenomic patterns of LD block variance for grain yield in the A subgenome of winter wheat.

Data availability

Seed aliquots from all cultivars used in the study are available from the corresponding authors on request for research purposes. The complete set of adjusted mean trait data from all field locations, years, treatments and replications is available at the online data repository with the digital object identifier number All other data used in the analyses are provided in the Supplementary Information.

Code availability

All codes used in the article are available from the corresponding authors. Please contact K.P.V.-F. via for code access and additional information.


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Funding for this study was provided by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) grant 031A354. Additional acknowledgements are provided in the Supplementary Information.

Author information




W.F., H.K., F.O., J.L., H.S., R.J.S., A.S., K.P.V.-F. and B.W. conceived the study and the subsequent data analysis. B.W., A.S., K.P.V.-F., C.L., S.N., T.R., T.-W.C., H.Z., S.S., M.F., E.R., B.J.H., M.J.H., M.M.B., A.B., J.L. and H.K. generated and analysed the data. K.P.V.-F., A.S. and R.J.S. wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Wolfgang Friedt or Hartmut Stützel or Rod J. Snowdon.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Journal peer review information: Nature Plants thanks M. Reynold, Brande Wulff and other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Results, Supplementary Acknowledgements, legends for Supplementary Tables 1–11, legends for Supplementary Data Files 1 and 2, Supplementary Figs. 1–23 and Supplementary References.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Tables

Supplementary Tables 1–11.

Supplementary Data 1

Genotype matrix and physical positions of SNP markers.

Supplementary Data 2

Detailed description of genome-wide LD blocks along with their corresponding variances for 15 traits among 191 wheat cultivars measured in three different management intensity levels in the main field trials.

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Voss-Fels, K.P., Stahl, A., Wittkop, B. et al. Breeding improves wheat productivity under contrasting agrochemical input levels. Nat. Plants 5, 706–714 (2019).

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