Wheat (c) Rex Features

Wheat will have sex with anything. That observation from Keith Edwards, professor of cereal genomics at Bristol University, holds the key to breaking the yield plateau, he said at a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council fringe meeting at the Oxford Farming Conference.

Wheat’s “promiscuity”’ to cross with plants outside its genus, such as grasses with significantly better photosynthetic efficiency, offers breeders great scope to increase yields.

Prof Edwards explained that a six-year collaboration between John Innes, NIAB, Rothamsted and Nottingham and Bristol universities called WISP (Wheat Improvement Strategic Programme) to identify new genetics is going “remarkably well”.

Wheat yields through the ages

  • Roman Britain to 1940s: 2.5t
  • 1940-2000: 10t/ha
  • 2000-2030: 20t/ha

Now halfway through the programme the partnership have identified 80,000 gene markers and are on course to have 820,000 by the end of this month.

When the collaboration started three years ago this figure stood at just 1,000. These gene markers enable scientists, and more importantly commercial breeders, to identify the traits of wheat plants in the lab, without having to take them into the field and cultivate – thereby saving significant time and money.

These markers are being made available to industry, patent-free, putting wheat yielding 20t/ha, on average across the UK, by 2030 a realistic goal, he said.

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