31 May 2002

Market choices all set to proliferate

By David Green

NEW strains of cereals – developed through both GM and traditional techniques – could open the door to many more markets, growers heard at a "dialogue" session with scientists at Easton College, near Norwich, recently.

Agronomic advances dominate current commercial GM cropping but many medical, industrial and nutritional uses of crops will come forward in the second wave of GM crops, says Wendy Harwood of the crop genetics department at the John Innes Centre.

"The first generation GM wheats and barleys will be of most benefit to the farmer – but with second generation plants the consumer and the environment will start to see a real benefit," she says.

In turn, farmers are likely to benefit from the new discoveries because they would have the potential to grow crops for new and potentially more valuable end uses, she adds.

For example, plants could be manipulated to produce therapeutic antibodies that could be made into vaccines. Animal feeds that are more easily digested or lead to more environmentally friendly effluent are other possibilities.

Problems with wheat causing an allergic reaction for some people could also be addressed with a GM approach, and progress is likely to be made in designing new wheats and barleys for the bread-making and malting industries.

"One of the big targets is to get bread-making quality wheats that yield like feed wheats," says Clare Mills, of the Institute of Food Research.

Greater understanding of how grain develops in the field and the influence of environmental conditions will be vital to enable the farming industry to respond to climate change and combat the problems of year on year variation in end use quality, she adds.

Kay Denyer, a starch expert at the John Innes Centre, says progress is being made in identifying genes which could lead to new uses for wheat starch.

"One of the ways to increase the value of the wheat crop in Britain is to try to develop strains of wheat which make different starches to those we have at the moment."

Biodegradeable plastic from wheat starch is one possibility. "That might be more valuable than growing bog-standard wheat for bread," she suggests.

Once the key genes have been identified, GM or traditional plant breeding could be used. "The GM route would potentially be quicker if it were not for all the extensive tests which have to be carried out." &#42

Farmer feedback

Growers who were at Norwich Research Park organised and Andersons sponsored event say they are keen to embrace new technology. Charles Fountain, who farms at South Acre, near Swaffham, welcomes the prospect of biodegradable packaging in a countryside sometimes littered with waste from fast food outlets and David Papworth, a trustee of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association and chairman of the meeting says with wheat at £55/t all new ideas need to be looked at. "We have experts on crop technology working on our own doorstep and it would be foolish not to listen to them." However, most of the developments are still at least ten years from commercialisation, he notes.

CEREAL SCIENCE

Potential proliferation of markets.

Agronomic traits only the start.

Protein quality key.

Biodegradeable plastic possibilities with wheat starch.

Farmer feedback

Growers who were at the Norwich Research Park-organised and Andersons-sponsored event say they are keen to embrace new technology. Charles Fountain, who farms at South Acre, near Swaffham, welcomes the prospect of biodegradable packaging in a countryside sometimes littered with waste from fast food outlets, and David Papworth, a trustee of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association and chairman of the meeting says with wheat at £55/t all new ideas need to be looked at. "We have experts on crop technology working on our own doorstep and it would be foolish not to listen to them." However, most of the developments are still at least ten years from commercialisation, he notes.

CEREALSCIENCE

&#8226 Potential proliferation of markets.

&#8226 Agronomic traits only the start.

&#8226 Protein quality key.

&#8226 Biodegradeable plastic possibilities with wheat starch.