If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of new wheat varieties, revised fertiliser recommendations, novel crop uses or changing end market requirements, then a visit to the Why Science Matters trail at Cereals 2009 should satisfy your curiosity.
Eight organisations – some of which will be more familiar than others – have come together to create a showcase for science, research and technology. Their aim is simple; to highlight the vital role of science in helping agriculture meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Helen Ferrier, chief science and regulatory affairs adviser at NFU, says the trail encompasses the whole scientific process, starting with fundamental science and going all the way through to applied research.
Scientific research and its interpretation is vital, says the NFU’s Helen Ferrier
“It will show the pipeline,” she says. “That includes work done at the molecular level in a laboratory at one end, right through to the translation of this into practical solutions which farmers can use in the field at the other.”
For growers to meet the complex needs of efficiency and productivity, while also delivering what the market and society demands, well funded scientific research and its interpretation is vital, stresses Dr Ferrier.
“The farming industry is being expected to increase food production, while using fewer resources and minimising its effect on the environment. This is where science and funding comes in and why it will remain important in future years.”
The Cereals event is a good backdrop for Why Science Matters, she believes. “All of the links in the agricultural supply chain will be represented at the event. It creates the business environment in which farms have to operate and shows how innovative solutions can be used to make improvements.”
In recent years, there has been a downward trend in funding for agriculture, she continues. “Added to that, the focus for any funding has been environmental mitigation, rather than productivity. The balance has to be right if we’re going to continue with the progress that’s been made.”
As well as the NFU, those organisations involved in the Why Science Matters trail include the John Innes Centre, HGCA, BSPB, NIAB, FERA (formerly CSL), Rothamsted Research and the AICC.
“Bringing their combined efforts together in one initiative is very different to looking at all of the organisations individually,” believes Dr Ferrier. “It will really show how new products and technologies, management practices and decision-making tools – all of which are crucial to a successful farming industry – have their foundations in good science.”
The life of the wheat crop will be demonstrated in a single, continuous plot by the John Innes Centre, with the gradual transition from germination to maturity being used to highlight the role of genetics.
Key turning points in the crop’s life will demonstrate how the right combinations of genes allow the crop to make the best use of available resources and agronomic treatments, while avoiding pests and diseases.
“These genetic resources are the difference between current popular varieties with good market share and the also-rans,” says Simon Griffiths of the John Innes Centre.
“They’re also the key as the farming environment changes – whether that’s due to the climate, legislation or economics – and the main crop turning points alter.”
The display comes from a strategic alliance between the John Innes Centre and NIAB, which aims to equip wheat breeders with new knowledge and tools to cope with future changes.
Precision farming technologies which offer both economic and environmental advantages are taking centre stage on the HGCA’s stand for Why Science Matters.
For cereal growers facing rising input costs and environmental concerns, precision farming techniques have the ability to improve the targeting of farm operations and applications when used correctly, the organisation believes.
Part of the year-long Be PRECISE initiative, the display will show how precision farming tools can increase competitiveness and improve environmental responsibility.
Kellie Payne of the HGCA says the efficiencies offered by precision farming can be evaluated with a cost-benefit calculator which is being unveiled at Cereals, allowing growers to weigh up whether the technology would have any benefit on their own farm.
“This technology has the scope to reduce fertiliser use, limit run-off, improve soil management and bring fuel savings,” she says. “It’s come at a time when the industry needs it most, as it helps to offer efficiencies.”
The development of plant varieties suitable for the UK’s unique growing conditions and disease pressures will be part of the British Society of Plant Breeders contribution to the Why Science Matters trail.
Last year, 98% of the winter wheat varieties grown by UK farmers were bred in this country, making local breeding programmes very important, points out Penny Maplestone of the BSPB.
“Commercial plant breeding is the only route to market for better crops, traits and breeding methods,” she says. “But there are a number of steps involved in bringing a new variety to market, and we hope to highlight these at Cereals.”
The UK plant breeding industry, which is represented by the BSPB, can see new opportunities opening up, through an improved understanding of genetics, she adds.
“Crops with higher yields, improved climate resilience and more consistent quality are just some of these,” notes Dr Maplestone. “But in order for these to be realised, we do need new investment in applied and translational crop science.”
On NIAB’s stand, the Smart Carbohydrate Centre on the Why Science Matters trail, will show how genetic variation can be used to develop wheat and barley varieties with new, improved types of starch.
With the potential to improve the quality of flour and malt for baking, brewing and distilling, the work going on behind the centre also offers opportunities to tailor starch composition to a range of industrial uses.
“These include the production of paint, glue, paper and cosmetics, as well as the manufacture of biodegradable packaging and plastics,” says Andy Greenland of NIAB.
The organisation’s specialist knowledge and skills have been assessing the performance and quality of crops and seeds for 90 years, he continues.
“But we’re also involved in pre-breeding and translational science,” he says. “This means that we’re working on projects to improve the performance and adaptability of crops, enhance the end-use quality of food and explore the potential non-food applications of crops.”
Pest and disease monitoring are vital to help develop national risk assessment strategies
Formerly known as CSL, the Food and Environment Research Agency is another participant in the Why Science Matters trail.
A new national research centre, FERA brings together expertise in policy issues, inspection services, risk evaluation and the response to emergency situations.
At Cereals, Mike Wray, director of operations, will introduce the agency’s role in food security, climate change mitigation and the development of sustainable agriculture.
“This is seen at farm level as the development of integrated crop protection strategies, the UK pathogen virulence survey and the testing of new variety resistance,” he says.
“But we’re involved in developing non-food crop uses and the listing of national varieties, too.”
Long-term pest and disease monitoring programmes are also run at FERA, to help with the formulation of national risk assessment strategies and to support the UK position on the revision of EU pesticides legislation.
“This helps to rapidly diagnose threats, evaluate risk and inform policy in both food and environmental areas. Our work on fusarium and mycotoxins is a good example of this in practice.”
The genetic control of grain size and shape is the focus of Rothamsted Research’s place on the Why Science Matters trail.
As these characteristics affect the amount of white flour that can be extracted during milling, grain shape and size is being assessed by a survey of the differences found in wheat varieties, together with more novel material.
Much of the analysis has looked at the depth and shape of the deep groove, as this presents a particular problem in flour extraction.
“Little is known about the genes that control the development of the grain,” says Mary-Louise Burnett of Rothamsted Research. “By using conventional genetic mapping techniques we hope to be able to help breeders select the right genes for better grain shape in new varieties.”
The model species Arabidopsis and maize are being used to obtain information, as it is believed that the basic underlying processes in grain development are shared between species, she adds.
“This work is important because it will help with the development of cereal crops for both traditional uses and for satisfying the needs of new markets, such as biofuels.”
Independent agronomy advice based on sound science is the basis of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants, so their role in the trail is obvious.
Some 220 consultant members deliver advice to farmers and growers, putting science into practice across 43% of UK arable land.
Not only does this help their growers to make the best returns, it also ensures that they comply with the latest regulations.
Rising input costs, together with widely fluctuating commodity prices, mean that the consequences of making the wrong decision can be very costly, warns Sarah Cowlrick of the AICC.
“At Cereals, we will be showing why growers need to take different approaches to managing varieties, according to their intended market,” she says.
“We will also be demonstrating the options with break crops and protein crops, to stimulate discussion and apply the latest scientific findings to the field level.”