Wheat yields of 20 tonnes/ha should be achievable in 20 years or less if collaboration between global scientists proves effective, according to Professor Maurice Moloney of Rothamsted Research.

With the rate of increase in UK wheat yields slowing, Prof Moloney told delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference it was essential to unlock the secrets of the wheat genome and release the ability to lift performance.

But he warned there was no silver bullet and it would take time with an integrated approach of scientists and plant breeders working worldwide on the 20:20 Wheat programme to find the solutions. UK average wheat yields of 8.6 tonnes/ha have plateaued, but 20 tonnes/ha is achievable with the right scientific development.

Prof Moloney said that the world average wheat yield is only around 2.5 tonnes/ha and therefore global food security in the next 40 years is dependent on releasing the genetic potential.

One of the issues is to develop yield potential while maintaining quality, but also closing the gap between what is scientifically possible and what is practically achieved by farmers in the field. Scientists are looking at ways of overcoming the inefficiency of photosynthesis and are learning from plants like corn, which handle photosynthesis well, he said.

The Broadbalk experiment, continuous wheat research that has taken place over the last 168 years, has shown that technological developments have dramatically improved yields and underlined the importance of soil quality.

So there is a belief that by combining a range of scientific disciplines globally, more can be done. Rothamsted has major collaborations at home with NIAB and academic institutions, and overseas with the G20 Wheat Initiative, the Wheat Yield Consortium and scientific teams in Brazil, USA, China and India.

The 20:20 Wheat programme involves 4 major areas of work:

  • maximizing yield potential
  • protecting the yield potential once established
  • exploring the interaction between the root system and soil
  • systems modelling

Prof Moloney said there was evidence to suggest that heat stress, not drought, will increase the vulnerability of wheat in the UK. He claimed that, despite the appalling weather last summer, yield losses due to water stress were falling.

Potential Value of Yield Increases in UK

  • Every 1 tonne/ha increase in yield is worth £318m each year at the farmgate
  • A 20% improvement in nitrogen uptake efficiency is worth £68m each year
  • Up to £700m yield loss from Septoria and 12% crop loss from Fusarium mycotoxin contamination

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