15 November 1996


Where do you go for impartial advice on plant varieties? For many the answer is the National Institute of Agricultural Botany. Andrew Blake asks John Ramsbottom, head of combinable crops and forage department, how NIAB is meeting modern needs

RECOMMENDED lists for next years winter crops will be announced at this years Smithfield Show.

But there is much more to NIAB than recommended lists alone, according to Mr Ramsbottom. He sees todays institute, founded in 1919, leaner but fighting fit to help farmers and their customers become more efficient.

Most growers link NIAB with the field testing leading to the recommended lists. That work on 150 UK sites, uses a big share of growers levy cash, and remains a key activity.

Indeed it is NIABs unbiased views on varieties that so many growers value, he says. "Varieties are their key building blocks." But the institute does a great deal more by way of seed services, research and development, training and laboratory work and has made big changes in recent years.

Main stimulus, since 1991, has been a steady withdrawal of income from applied research for MAFF and revised statutory programmes. From deriving 90% of its income from government in the 1970s and 80s, NIAB now finds itself with less than half its funding from this source.

"It represents one of the biggest removals of funds from any quasi-public sector body," says Mr Ramsbottom who readily acknowledges the HGCAs role in stepping in to ensure survival of the recommended lists for cereals and oilseed rape.

Redundancies have been inevitable. Staff numbers are down from 317 in 1991/92 to 261. But closer co-operation with bodies such as Scottish Agricultural College, the Department of Agriculture Northern Ireland and many other organisations, ranging alphabetically from ADAS to Westward Arable Centre, has helped take up the slack without compromising NIABs reputation for independence, he claims.

"We have also had a lot more support from the National Association of British and Irish Millers, the Institute of Brewing and the Maltsters Association of Great Britain as well as distillers in Scotland." Only by doing so and developing harmonised tests, for example on grain quality, to which all agree can breeders produce varieties which will willingly be taken up by farmers and end-users for the good of the whole industry, he explains.

"Identifying variety improvements must be an exact science when you realise that a 1% improvement over the 1996 cereal crop means an extra £23m to growers."

Spreading the news of latest NIAB findings is getting much more attention nowadays, says Mr Ramsbottom. "Information dissemination and getting data out to growers and merchants who have to take decisions on seed multiplication is an important area."

HGCA underpinning

With a wealth of results from so many sources, spreading the news in a way that is useful to all is a big challenge, but a task which must be done, he recognises. Underpinning of the Varplan service by HGCA last harvest has been a useful move. "We have had plenty of takers – in the thousands. And I intend to see it go much further next year."

Although many growers make their broad cropping plans well ahead of harvest, such information is always valuable, he maintains. "There can be some quite dramatic last minute changes to variety choice as a result of a decline in disease ratings or an improvement in performance." We are sometimes accused of putting out too much information, but I believe we have got to bite the bullet on this. The industry must have available as much independent advice as possible."

Criticism of some of NIABs more basic research, like monitoring new disease races is unwarranted, he maintains. Keeping a close look out for potential problems is vital insurance which becomes even more important as profitability is squeezed. "Fungicides are vital tools but they cost money, and when the market price of grain drifts there arent many ways of improving profits other than to reduce inputs. This can only be achieved by better disease resistance."

Future challenges

Hybrids and crops genetically modified by bioengineering will keep NIAB very busy in future, predicts Mr Ramsbottom. "Unless there is political interference I think we shall see more and more coming through the system to the benefit of growers.

"We already have lots of material in trials. Fully restored hybrid oilseed rapes as well as the composite types have interesting repercussions, especially with regard to cross pollination. We have got to look very carefully at whether the current testing system properly evaluates the risks of growing composite hybrids. We are still using the standard method this autumn, but from next year we will probably have got enough varieties coming through to consider separate trials."

The need to reassess the impact of plant populations on the performance of some new types soon to be marketed has already received attention at five UK sites (two NIAB, two BSPB and one SAC) as part of a joint EU exercise with France and Germany.

Again Mr Ramsbottom acknowledges the help of growers money via HGCA in backing the UK end of the 17-trial operation. "Funding bodies are always fearful that they may be embarking on open-ended funding exercises. So it was nice to see a modest HGCA investment of £9000 for two years providing answers that should allow us to develop and improve our testing system."n

Big changes mean NIAB is now better able than ever to advise growers, says John Ramsbottom (inset).


&#8226 Headquarters in Cambridge.

&#8226 Nine regional centres.

&#8226 Provides:

– technical services

– contract research

– information

– training

– consultancy.

&#8226 261 staff.

&#8226 £9.3m/year turnover.

&#8226 Trials on 150 sites.

&#8226 Seed certification centre.