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More genetically diverse cereal varieties could help growers tap into a growing niche market – and make their businesses more resilient. How genetic diversity can add value to cereal crops

• Niche markets can be lucrative

• Varieties boost farm resilience

• Cereal sector working together

More genetically diverse cereal varieties could help growers tap into a growing niche market – and make their businesses more resilient.

Growers have a commercial and economic imperative to identify new markets for heterogeneous grains, listeners were told at the National Organic Conference. The event took place earlier this summer at Green Acres Farm, near Shifnal, Shropshire.

Higher appreciation

“In the artisan bakery sector there’s a much higher appreciation of flavour and provenance,” said Steven Jacobs, business development manager at organic certification body Organic Farmers and Growers and co-founder of the UK Grain Lab.

In the quest for profit and productivity, many farmers still favour high-yielding mass market varieties. This has its advantages, but Mr Jacobs said it was also contributing to lower genetic diversity in cereals.

The UK Grain Lab is a group of scientists,plant breeders, millers, bakers and farmers who grow more diverse “low impact” grains which rely less on external inputs than conventional commodity-based varieties.

Mr Jacobs said: “Although the yields may not match those of some of the varieties at the top of the AHDB Recommended List, genetically diverse crops require fewer synthetic inputs resulting in comparable profit margins.”

“Collaboration is vital to increasing understanding of which low impact varieties perform best, said Mr Jacobs. “We want people to support a much more biology-based and more diverse food and farming system.”

Plant breeder Edward Dickin, a lecturer at Harper Adams University, believes there is a strong incentive to develop non-commodity varieties.

“From a scientific perspective, the problem with the single variety wheats that dominate the market is the selection pressure for disease is increased,” Dr Dickin told the conference.

Higher appreciation

“Popular varieties can breakdown very quickly as their uniformity makes them quite vulnerable.

“So although high yielding, they’re more susceptible to new pathogens as those evolve, which puts the wheats at a major disadvantage.”

“In seed breeding trials here and elsewhere, our objective is to have crops that simultaneously evolve with the pathogens. Ultimately, it’s all about maintaining balance.”

There are thousands of wheat varieties worldwide – but only about 50 are grown commercially in the UK. The push for output has meant crops have lost three-quarters of their genetic diversity since 1900, said Dr Dickin.

Crop resilience

This has affected crop resilience. It has only been in the last two decades that a small number of people have started to pioneer Composite Cross Populations and re-establish genetically diverse plant varieties.

This work has been carried out in the EU under a special arrangement granting permission for organic growers to swap heterogenous cereal seed. The UK Grain Lab has been working behind the scenes so UK growers can also swap seed.

It has submitted an advocacy paper asking Defra to adopt a more progressive stance with heterogeneous plant material to ensure UK seed breeders and farmers are afforded similar legal protection as EU growers.

All commercial plants and seeds are protected by Intellectual Property Law under Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR). Farmers must declare and pay royalties for seed, whether newly purchased or when they are saving seed from a previous crop.

Mr Jacobs agrees that seed producers should be paid fairly, but expresses concern over corporate control within the sector.“Farmers are severely limited in terms of what is available especially growers who want to move away from chemical farming.

Huge influence

“Just four business are estimated to control more than 60% of global proprietary seed sales. The same four also have a huge influence on the market for the synthetic inputs key to growing the top plant varieties.”

Growers like Lincolnshire farmer John Turner want UK law to better reflect the different seed markets so farmers won’t face uncertainty over the legality of the production or marketing of more diverse varieties.

Mr Turner has been growing genetically diverse wheat since 2017. Like Mr Lea, he currently sells his wheat directly in more localised markets – as well as growing heterogeneous barley, oats and peas.

Family tree

Part of UK Grain Lab’s work is to introduce an online platform that records and authenticates genetically diverse crops. It means farmers, millers and bakers can have confidence in what they’re buying.

To help achieve this, Mr Turner’s son Ben has developed an open-source software application called HetroGen that will create a family tree of the seed, tracing it back to its original breeder and monitor how the crop is growing and adapting.

“Farmers can register as a user to supply data to record each sale. They’ll also be able to monitor details such as the seed rate, harvest data, typical seed quality, germination rates and pathogen risks,” said Mr Turner.

Growing community

“At the same time HetroGen also fulfils our responsibility to maintain records for Defra. It’s a very collaborative approach and a totally scalable model. Its a growing community in every sense.”

Dr Dickin believes a key advantage of HetroGen is that it enables farmers to make informed decisions. Growers can work with the seed breeders to find what works best on their land, he added.

“The wide range of differences found in genetically diverse seed allows farmers to adapt their crops to thrive in their local climate and provide natural protection against disease or pest outbreak,” he said.