Cereals 2010: Plant breeding requires funding

The UK plant breeding industry adds over £1bn of additional value to the economy and must receive adequate funding, according to the British Society of Plant Breeders.

Plant breeding was responsible for 90% of the yield improvement in wheat and barley varieties over the past 26 years, said Donald Webb from independent economic consultancy, DTZ.

With the UK’s current wheat area of 2.1m ha, this equated to a 3.9m t/ha increase in production since 1982, he said, at a briefing on the eve of Cereals 2010.

“2010 wheat prices range from feed at £95.70/t to milling at £114.5/t – so the gross value of the yield increase in 2010 prices attributable to plant breeders is £373-£445m per annum,” he said. “This is equivalent to a 40 fold return on seed royalties paid by growers.”

Quality had also been improved with the quantity of UK milling wheat used by millers increasing to 80% in 2008, from just 35% in 1972, before plant breeding took off.

Crucially this has allowed millers such as Hovis to source all of their wheat from UK growers, he said. “The increase in UK milled wheat is supporting provenance claims by major British bread makers.”

Higher yielding barley varieties provided British farmers with an additional £75m worth of grain per year and the development of lower beta gluten varieties improved brewing the brewing process.

The benefit of improved genetics was even greater in forage maize, said Mr Webb. “The economic benefit of improved dry matter intake, lower production costs and improved milk yield attributable to improved varieties is worth £66m per year at the farm level.”

BSPB chairman Nigel Moore said it showed crop genetic improvement was crucial for increasing agricultural production to meet food security and climate change demands.

“But the investment needed to exploit this advancing knowledge base remains greater than commercial plant breeders can manage alone,” he said.

Without new investment and improved collaboration between public and private sector research the industry would struggle to meet these demands, said Limagrain’s Thomas Joliffe. “Plant science is fundamental to come up with the new genes, but plant breeding is the only route to market.”

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