31 May 1996


With most plant breeders today owned by Continental companies, is there a danger that wheat varieties for the UK could become niche products hardly worth developing? Andrew Blake investigates

UK wheat growers who fear their needs could be ignored by breeders tempted to economise on cereal breeding have little cause for concern.

That is the reassuring message from the companies themselves and other industry specialists.

CPB Twyfords recent take-over by a consortium of firms including the German Lochow-Petkus operation is the latest move which sees most UK breeders in foreign hands.

Hybrids apart, breeding cereals is always likely to be less profitable than creating new varieties of crops such as maize. So in a competitive world, and remembering the old adage that barleys travel but wheats do not, there was always a risk that wheat, a poor relation, could be neglected. The overwhelming reaction is that this is most unlikely.


Indeed, it is the expertise of UK breeders and their customers offering good profit opportunities which has attracted foreign companies, says CPB Twyford director Ray Spreadbury. The fact that the UK also has the highest level of certified seed in western Europe is strong driver, he adds.

The UK industry is regarded as one of the most innovative in Europe, he maintains. The idea that it might be left to choose from a limited range of unsuitable Continental varieties is a non-starter. If anything the flow of UK-bred varieties across the Channel should increase. "Eight of the top 30 winter wheat varieties in multiplication in France are from overseas and seven of those are from the UK."


Sheer economics mean Zeneca Seeds, currently negotiating its marriage with Dutch firm Van der Have, must breed both for the UK and the Continent, where milling varieties are a key target, says the companys Alan Armstrong.

"Were still putting 50% of our effort into breadmaking wheat, though its like trying to nail jelly to a wall, because of changing milling technology. However, we are very serious about the UK market."

Precise details of where the new companys breeding and testing centres will be sited have yet to be decided. But to ensure a good share of all three main EU wheat seed markets – France, Germany and the UK – crossing and selection has to take place in each country, stresses colleague Bram van der Have.

Plant physiologists still struggle to understand why some varieties suit certain regions better than others, so local operations remain vital, he explains.


The sale of Nickerson Seeds by Shell to the French co-operative Limagrain in 1990 could be interpreted as a problem. "But its not," claims Nickersons Frank Curtis.

Limagrain is farmer-owned with five main divisions, one of which, the Plant Industries Group, is committed to cereals at all levels from breeding to baking, he explains. Its acknowledgement that success with wheat can only come through programmes dedicated to specific climates and ensures that UK growers will not be disregarded. "Although we are owned by a Continental company it doesnt mean we cant have wheats dedicated for the UK market."


In theory the merger of Cibas and Sandozs businesses, each with its own plant breeding operations, to form Novartis could impinge on UK growers choice but should not limit it. "I see no fear whatsoever of any lack of investment in the UK," says Steve Smith of New Farm Crops which has been Ciba-owned since 1992.

The union is of two equals, but Sandozs Hilleshög breeding business is not very cereal orientated, he explains. NFCs networking arrangements allowing it to breed specifically for all three main EU segments, including the Northern European sector of the UK, Denmark, Northern France and Germany, is unlikely to change, he suggests. "The UK is not a niche market, especially in wheat," stresses Mr Smith.


PBI Cambridge, which has been part of Unilevers Plant Science Group for nearly a decade, will continue to breed specifically for the UK as well as the Continent, maintains cereals marketing manager Bob Newman.

But establishment of breeding stations at Chartres in France and in the Halle region of Germany about six years ago reflects scope to expand onto the Continent.

"The majority of our wheats are selected in the UK. Thats why we set up the Continental stations."


Seed Innovations is a wholly owned subsidiary of Dutch breeder Cebeco. The UK is one of the big three markets for wheat, says technical manager Stephen Smith. Recognition of that and the fact that the UK has different climatic and especially quality requirements sees SI with its own relatively young breeding programme.

"The UK is dominated by feed wheats where yield is paramount. In other countries there is a lot more emphasis on quality," he notes.


Elsoms Seeds is just beginning to see the fruits of increased investment in wheat breeding realised with Caxton, provisionally recommended as a potential breadmaker last autumn.

The company differs from others in being independent and wholly UK-owned says cereals director Bob Miles. "Ownership is not necessarily too important, but it helps to have a good UK base." Pan-European breeding does not rule out UK successes, he says. "But wheat varieties dont always travel well. Breeding must be done in the country where the crop is grown."


THE National Institute of Agricultural Botanys cereal variety specialist Richard Fenwick foresees little prospect of the cupboard of UK-adapted wheats being emptied. "My feeling is that the European developments wont alter the type of varieties available to UK growers."

Any company abandoning its UK programme would see it soon snapped up by others, he believes. Breeders expecting a good slice of the UK market with varieties bred on the Continent would be disappointed.

"Weve seen plenty of European wheats, but they are often tall and weak and have a different spectrum of disease resistance." Most are directed at the quality end of the market and so tend to be lower yielding, he adds.

"I cannot see breeders stopping breeding for the UK."

Mike Carver, director of the Arable Research Centres, agrees. Some of the bigger companies have explored the possibility of centralised variety testing, he says. "But there is no substitute for testing in the precise region the crop will be grown."

That logic goes even further, he maintains. By selecting from variety crosses in one area only, breeders could easily discard material useful elsewhere. &#42

&#8226 Concern that wheat breeding for the UK market may stop.

&#8226 Hybrid crops more profitable.

&#8226 Breeders and independents say such a move is unlikely.

&#8226 European owners attracted to UK breeders by innovative breeding, profitable seed market and highest level of certified seed in Europe.

&#8226 Flow of varieties from UK to Europe more likely.

Disease pressures in maritime UKrequire different defence strategies to those on the Continent. Breeding has a strong role to play to ensure those defences are maintained.

UKconditions differ a lot from those across the English Channel, and breeders look set to maintain a good supply of varieties to match them.

Zeneca is still targeting bread wheats which are a key market, says Alan Armstrong.

Centralised testing risks the loss of useful breeding material, suggests the ARCs Dr Mike Carver.

Continental wheats, like the Soissons being combined here, have made relatively slight inroads into the UK market.

Nickersons Seeds owner Limagrain acknowledges the need for a dedicated UKprogramme, says Frank Curtis.