7 July 1995

Dont discard old guard too quickly

By Robert Harris

OLDER quality cereal varieties are being killed off too early to the detriment of the industry, according to a leading plant breeder.

Users and growers alike stand to gain by keeping them for established markets rather than expecting newer "middle of the road" varieties to do the job, says Alan Armstrong, commercial manager for Zeneca Seeds in Norfolk.

That could easily be done by premium buyback contracts to tempt farmers to stick with. This would also allow breeders to maintain supplies, he adds.

Single variety markets

"Im not talking about shoring up old varieties for the sake of it. Im concerned about single variety markets – those that are selected, grown, stored and sold as the genuine quality article. If we are serious about producing and selling for these markets, lets hang on to varieties that measure up."

Doing so would provide a much-needed continuity of supply that is missing, he says. Both users and farmers alike would benefit. "End users need time to acquaint themselves with new varieties and to fully test them. Its surprising how long that takes."

Malting barleys and milling wheats typically take 3-4 years to make their mark, he says. But by then they are becoming long in the tooth as far growers are concerned. Once a better one comes along, they feel obliged to drop them from their plans.

"End users throw their hands up in horror. It creates a stop start situation. The market just gets used to it and on go the brakes."

Growers also suffer, says Mr Armstrong. "While they are very receptive to new varieties and the benefits they offer, particularly yield, there is a feeling of frustration that they are moving out of quality established varieties a little earlier than they need to."

He shares that frustration. "As a plant breeder, Im all for the steady turnover of new varieties. But there is a need to supply known quality, tested and established varieties as well. Too often we lose these when they have the most to offer."

Breeders cannot afford to maintain out-of-fashion varieties under the present system, he maintains. "Unless we can make a case with end markets through contracts and a planned approach we will terminate them."

Such contracts must offer realistic premiums to compensate for lower output. For that to happen, the industry – end users, merchants and growers – need to forge closer links, he says. "Everyone talks about producing for added value quality markets. We need to make it a practical commercial reality."

"Quality must carry reasonable and reliable premiums for secure markets. Buyback contracts will create a backbone which perhaps in the past has been missing. They will also avoid the boom/bust cycle where one years premiums can be completely different to the next. Thats wearing thin with farmers."

Mr Armstrong believes such a system could see older varieties taking 15% of the market, replacing newer niche varieties and average performers which have little to offer. Such "also-rans" have few if any agronomic advantages, and unknown commercial quality, he maintains.

"New niche varieties are a figment of breeders imagination. They are varieties that have missed the mainline market. They are relatively unknown, yet growers and end users are asked to make a commitment to them. Its unrealistic. Why should anyone want to buy untested varieties? There are plenty of well-known ones available. Lets maintain them to do the job."

Maintaining older quality varieties that users need is preferable to pushing new niche varieties, says Alan Armstrong.