A once-common weed and a cereal that was widely grown in the UK many years ago are two crops that are being developed with the aim of adding value to farmers’ arable rotations.
Growers have long searched for the holy grail break crop that reliably delivers margins as good as wheat, as well as enabling farmers to widen their cropping and benefit from the longer breaks.
This could be a yield boost in oilseed rape or reducing take-all in cereals.
Two crops of the future, ahiflower and naked barley, are set to tap into the high-value health food and supplement market.
Ahiflower’s specialist oil and naked barley’s beta glucans offer many health benefits, including a reduced risk of diabetes for the cereal and improved joint and heart health when consuming the oil.
So by producing products with specific uses, researchers and breeders believe these crops will earn premiums rather than being just commodity crops.
Naked barley is a strain of the cereal crop where the husk threshes free from the grain when harvested, because of a single mutation.
“It [the grains] looks more like wheat in appearance,” explains Ed Dickin, lecturer in crop physiology at Harper Adams University College.
“Husks are normally glued on to the grain, but a mutation that occurred about 8,000 years ago means that it [naked barley] does not produce this glue. So when it goes through a combine harvester, you get naked barley.”
Dr Dickin, who has been researching naked barley for the past 10 years, highlights that the crop was widely grown across the UK in the Bronze Age.
Then it disappeared, as wheat was being grown as a source of food, while conventional barley was used for malting.
Naked barley was overlooked because the lack of a husk leaves the embryo exposed, so you can get poor germination and is, therefore, less suited for malting, he explains.
The crop also tends to contain higher concentrations of beta glucan. Conventional spring malting barley contains about 3-3.5% beta glucan, while naked barley is nearer 7%.
Beta glucan is a soluble fibre, and Dr Dickin says its presence in grain reduces alcohol yield. That is another reason why naked barley fell out of favour.
However, beta glucan does offer health benefits and there is a recognised health claim that these compounds in oats help reduce blood cholesterol levels when eaten. More recently, naked barley was added to the health claim.
Beta glucans also have a role in slowing down glucose release into the blood, therefore, helping prevent type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes accounts for about 10% of the NHS budget, with diet being one of the main factors.
Therefore, eating naked barley could help the nation’s health, and Dr Dickin believes it is an example of how farming can play a beneficial role in public health.
In addition, there is interest from artisan bakers to use the seed in heritage bread, offering another market option.
He recalls a project carried out 10 years ago when he was a researcher at Bangor University, which looked at identifying alternative crops for Welsh growers.
“Naked barley was the one crop that showed the most promise, but the lack of a high-yielding variety was the limiting factor. Naked barley typically yielded less than half of conventional barley.”
To address this yield shortfall, he has been developing varieties using malting stalwart Propino and adding in the traits for beta glucans and naked barley.
The aim is to combine this with agronomic traits from the modern variety such as stiff straw and good disease resistance.
“The maximum possible yield is 85% of husked barley, as you lose the weight of the husk.”
For example, last year, which was a good barley year, naked barley achieved 8t/ha while conventional barley yielded 9t/ha plus. “So we have made progress and are getting closer.”
Looking to the future, Dr Dickin sees naked barley having a role in rotations and believes it will be commercial in five years. He is currently looking to partner with a breeder.
“There is no reason why it can’t become a major crop. It will always be a specialist crop, like naked oats, but it will eventually offer a spring cereal with another market option.”
A member of the borage family, ahiflower offers a rich source of key omega fatty acids that help promote joint heath, cardiovascular function and brain function.
The crop is derived from corn gromwell, which was once a widespread weed in spring cropping until the rise of winter cropping and modern herbicides saw its demise.
It is grown for its oilseeds, which provide a higher-quality alternative to flax oil for the heath supplements market.
Simon Meakin, UK operations manager at Natures Crops International, says the oil contains key essential omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 oils, including stearidonic acid (SDA), an omega-3 fatty acid from plants with similar health benefits to fish oils.
However, unlike flax oil, it also contains an essential omega-6 fatty acid, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). GLA is associated with skin health, hormonal balance, and reducing inflammation.
The benefits of consuming ahiflower oil include improved cardiovascular health, enhanced brain development, anti-aging, and better joint health.
Effectively, it offers the benefits of primrose, borage and fish oils, but unlike fish oil, is more sustainable, fully traceable, and suitable for vegans and vegetarians.
“It has been estimated that every hectare of this crop grown saves 130,000 oily fish,” says Mr Meakin.
Consumers are becoming more conscious of the sustainability of fisheries and the downward pressure on fish stocks.
This could lead to a significant increase in demand for ahiflower oil in the coming years.
Another selling point, is that it is not GM. “In fact, it is the largest plant-based non-GM source of SDA,” he adds.
Mr Meakin says the crop’s development has taken place over the past 13 years or so.
There are both winter- and spring-sown cultivars, which are the result of many years of investment in selection, breeding and agronomic improvement in partnership with centres of excellence including Niab, and it likes a cooler, maritime climate, so well suited to UK conditions.
In coming years, Mr Meakin sees the combinable crop having a growing role in more rotations as demand increases, replacing a greater proportion of the fish oil market.
It is a good breakcrop and he believes ahiflower could potentially replace a proportion of oilseed rape.