Some of the genetic technologies currently being developed and trialled in research institutes could be available on-farm in less than 10 years, according Dr Alison Bentley, director of genetics and breeding at NIAB.
Provided the regulatory environment is amenable and private investment can be found, these technologies are ready and could be commercialised and feature on the Arable Farm of 2027, says Dr Bentley.
Varieties produced using these techniques, along with hybrid wheat, accelerated breeding, and easier, faster selection of traits, could radically alter arable farming. Dr Cristobal Uauy, project leader crop genetics at the John Innes Centre, told the Agricultural Industries Confederation’s AgriBusiness 2017 conference that we are in the middle of a DNA revolution, which could unlock the huge hidden potential of wheat.
While genetic modification (GM) remains controversial and seems unlikely to be approved in the short- to medium-term, wheat produced using genetic editing techniques could be on the market. These techniques are similar to natural mutation, are undetectable, and may well offer a solution which is acceptable to Government and consumers.
They could, in Dr Uauy’s words, ‘redefine, accelerate and enhance traditional breeding’.
As well as gene editing, Dr Bentley highlights the potential role of genome sequencing, diversity breeding and genetic modification in the development of future varieties.
Dr Uauy says the cost of genome sequencing has fallen exponentially to the point where it now costs about $1000 (£772), and can be used both for selecting traits in cereals, and better understanding pathogens such as cereal rust.
These alternative technologies to GM seem to offer more hope for new and better breeds within the 10-year timeline. In fact, Rothamsted Research only recently (November 2016) received permission for field trials on GM on its farm, and has no expectations in terms of when and if these varieties will become commercially available.
However, independent wheat breeding consultant Bill Angus is optimistic some of the concerns about GM will have been overcome and traits which improve quality, proteins, and starches, and address the needs of end users, will be coming on-stream by 2027.
He believes the work of organisations such as Rothamsted, NIAB, the John Innes Centre, and universities such as Bristol and Nottingham, is critical to continued progress in wheat breeding. “I hate the term ‘yield plateau’,” he says.
“We have made gradual progress but we really now need to look to genetics to move us forward. I think some of the breeding companies have concentrated too much on short-term gains, but in the UK we have a really good balance between the public and private sectors, and these ‘public’ organisations are driving developments forward.
“We are fortunate in the UK to have such strong ‘public’ sector, and excellent co-operation across the industry. I am confident this will continue to be the case post-Brexit. Our UK science base from the BBSRC is world-leading.
“However, if farmers are going to capture and take advantage of these developments, they will have to do things better than they are doing them today. Getting the detail right will be key, especially if they are working with varieties with a greater diversity of characteristics.
“Better transparency from all parties involved including farmers, agronomists, breeders, bodies such as AHDB, even through to the processors and manufacturers, will be really important. At the moment growers operate in a knowledge vacuum and are not able to get the full benefit from new varieties.”
For many in the industry hybridising of wheat is currently the ‘holy grail’ of wheat breeding. Bayer is one company aiming to be one of the UK’s top wheat seed breeders and is concentrating much of its efforts on the development of suitable hybrid wheats for the UK.
Adrian Cottey, head of seed for Bayer in the UK and Ireland, says: “In 10 years’ time, we still believe wheat will be core to UK arable farmers’ cropping, but there’s a big question over whether it will be the same winter wheat we see today.
There could be a different split between traditionally planted winter wheat, later planted winter wheat, and spring wheat. “We know there is already a gap between supply and demand for wheat, and that is likely to open up further. So wheat could actually be taking the place of other crops such as barley, and hybrid wheat could fit into roles that barley does at the present time, such as second cereals.”
In terms of problems which will need solving in 10 years’ time, Mr Cottey says weed challenge will continue to drive changes in cropping patterns. “I’m not sure we can see any immediate solutions for the resistant grass-weed difficulties we have,” he says, “and by then, we may well have more resistant broadleaf weeds to deal with.
Both the changes in planting patterns and development of new traits could help in this area,” he adds.
“In developing traits, we have to look at the end markets and consider the challenges there. Hitting specifications for end users is going to be a major challenge, with issues like mycotoxins and ergot coming to the fore.
“We could also have a tougher climate involving drier summers and more autumn rain and storms.” Mr Cottey believes hybrid wheat could be part of the solution to all these problems, and provide greater flexibility in terms of sowing times.
“We know hybrid wheat has more vigour and greater ability to kick-start growth, which will help in cases where farmers want to delay sowing. It may even be that future hybrid wheats can produce as much yield from spring sowing as today’s winter wheats.
“This will help by providing greater competition to weeds, and we are already seeing this with hybrid barley. Other characteristics such as greater vigour and better rooting will also help.
“Rooting could help to overcome problems with water shortage, and increase efficiency of nitrogen and other nutrient usage.
Hybrid wheats give better yields from the same inputs and we should remember only 60% of applied nitrogen is used by today’s wheat. “We also have to consider the changes in cultivation with the greater use of cover crops and green manures.
More farmers are drilling directly into these crops and these techniques will require varieties like hybrid wheat which have greater vigour and will establish more easily,” says Mr Cottey.
“Hybrid wheat could push up yields across the board, but particularly in difficult conditions, and will produce more uniform results across the field. They could be particularly suitable for areas which are more challenging, and where farmers have previously switched to barley.
They could also fit in well to the second cereals’ slot, currently occupied by hybrid barley.” There are other benefits to hybrid wheat and Mr Cottey believes we will be sowing with considerably less seed and have the potential to sow in a more precise way, with spacing for wheat plants.
This will be especially relevant for higher value seeds, performing at lower seeding rates, and could impact on seed treatments, and may even lead to a pelleted wheat seed, or at least a seed that carries a wider range of seed treatments.
Lower seed rates and phased planting could also provide a greater window of time for seed treatment to take place in. While hybrids may well be less susceptible to disease, Mr Cottey believes the key point about hybrids is they provide the opportunity to introduce traits more rapidly.
“Why not have a hybrid wheat with a herbicide tolerant system?” he asks. “This might not be available by 2027, but it would certainly be on the horizon by then.
These kind of changes could make a significant difference. Hybrids such as those with much better pest cover will fundamentally change the way we work, reduce the need for spraying, and improve the environmental footprint. “This will be a journey and we won’t be there by 2027, but I think we will have seen significant progress by then.
There will certainly be a change in the balance between the crop protection that is done by a sprayer and the crop protection provided by the genetics. “Other traits could include those that provide benefits for end use, and those that improve both final quality and quality in the field, no matter what the conditions.
Overall what we are looking to do is to improve yields but, more importantly, reduce risks. I think hybrid wheat will be a key risk reduction tool.” Mr Angus believes hybrid wheats should be used as part of a strategic approach. He says: “Hybrid wheats are really a solution to problems on the farm. I don’t see them as an alternative to conventional varieties when they are grown in good conditions.
“Hybrid wheats can be more profitable than traditional second wheats, or where the farmer has lighter land, or more marginal soils. Hybrid wheat is a strategic tool to be used alongside more conventional varieties.”
It is not just hybrid wheat which will change the way arable farms look in 2027. Both Mr Angus and Mr Lloyd highlight the opportunities for growing varieties in the UK which would reduce current imports, such as breadmaking wheats, and open up new exports markets for UK growers.
Varieties which provide strong resistance to disease will be important, and Mr Lloyd believes varieties with resistance to septoria tritici will continue to be bestsellers.