Among challenges facing grain-based foods in the last several years, few seem as daunting as the continuing trend away from wheat planting in the United States. From peak planted area of 88 million acres in 1981, seedings were down to only 54 million in 2010. While no magic fix of this situation looms on the horizon, a highly positive sign emerged from a recent Milling & Baking News interview (published this week) of executives in charge of the newly restarted wheat business at the Monsanto Co.

In addition to offering a hopeful opinion about the future of bioengineered wheat, the executives described the great potential for conventionally bred wheat using technologies, including the company’s chipper, a machine that automatically shaves a tiny tissue sample off a seed. Dramatically accelerating and enhancing seed breeding, the proprietary machine (which handles 100,000 kernels each day) allows researchers to analyze genetics, looking for beneficial traits identified through genotyping. Researchers are able to winnow out less promising seeds without ever planting them.

Soybean chippers have been used for five years and are credited with contributing to significant yield enhancements. The first wheat chipper will become operational in 2011. Whether the shrinkage in wheat plantings will be reversed in the years to come remains very much an open question. Technologies boosting yields of competitive crops continue apace. Still, major investments in breeding technologies like the chipper for wheat offers the industry a hopeful sign.