Cereal Breeding: New Approaches
This session focused on the need for cereal varieties bred specifically for use in organic systems which will perform better under such conditions than pure lines bred for high-input agriculture. Two complementary presentations were made: Dr Thomas Döring (Organic Research Centre) described the theory behind genetic, ecological and economic approaches to improve yield reliability under increasingly variable climates, whilst Michael Marriage (Doves Farm) gave a farmer and processor perspective, reporting on his practical experiences using older strains of wheat in a commercial setting. Audience discussion included the measurement of yield, and the role of selection in shaping wheat population characteristics.
Standard cereal varieties in arable agriculture are generally bred for high performance under intensive systems. In organic situations, without the use of external inputs their yield can be poor as they are unable to cope with the more complex agro-environment. There is a need, therefore, for varieties better suited to organic systems and this was the theme of the cereal breeding session.
On the basis that climate change scenarios predict increased environmental variability, Thomas Döring described a range of approaches to promote yield reliability in cereals. Underpinning them all is the concept that increasing diversity leads to a more stable crop, with a buffering capacity better able to withstand extreme fluctuations in weather patterns. Composite cross populations and variety mixtures were described and their impact on yield stability was illustrated with data from a current UK based multi-site research programme.
An interactive exercise generated much discussion on the relative importance of yield potential and stability with the conclusion that diversification and collaboration between farms can help to share risks in unpredictable climates and increase resilience. The historical development of modern wheat varieties was discussed by Michael Marriage in an interesting journey that took us from Southern Turkey 10-12 000 years BC through to the Middle ages and onto contemporary innovations in breeding approaches.
A highlight was the description of ‘Heritage Wheat’ which originates from grain collected from 12th century thatched roofs. The protection afforded to the grains by hulls and coverings of soot, which passed through the thatch from open fires, preserved their viability and with the help of researchers allowed them to be germinated and multiplied. The resultant grain, which is mixed with older wheat varieties Bartholomew, Bearded April and Spring mix, has corkscrew ears. A commercially available product based on heritage wheat will be publically launched in Autumn 2010.