Far greater understanding of underlying genetics, growing use of DNA markers and increasingly sophisticated food laboratory technology are allowing UK plant breeders to make major progress in the complex challenge of bread and biscuit wheat development.
“Quality wheat breeding remains very
much of a numbers game”
This was the up-beat message of RAGT Seeds’ senior UK wheat breeder, Ed Flatman at this year’s HGCA/nabim Milling Wheat Conference (Thursday February 25).
“Quality wheat breeding remains very much of a numbers game,” he explained. “And a very complicated one at that, involving so many different factors. The more crosses you make, the more progeny you grow and the more lines you screen and test the more likely you are to deliver varieties with the superior packages of consistent performance growers and millers need in their bread and biscuit wheats.
“By adding the power of molecular genetics to the traditional skills of breeders and complementing these with far more advanced quality screening at an earlier stage in the breeding funnel, we are being able to dramatically improve our success in ensuring reliable milling quality in high performance wheats; increasingly skewing the odds in our favour, if you like.
“Take the yield-protein relationship, for instance. For every 1% yield increases the protein content automatically falls by around 0.1%, simply through dilution. So if we breed a variety with a 5% yield improvement unless we also introduce extra protein in some way its protein content will be 0.5% lower.
“Our challenge, therefore, clearly has to be to find additional protein-boosting genes,” Ed Flatman reasoned. “Or to find genes delivering equivalent baking quality at lower protein levels. In both these respects, molecular genetics allied to sophisticated laboratory testing has allowed us to identify some valuable candidates within the wheat genome.
“It will take time to combine these genes in the best possible way and ‘fix’ them into backgrounds that harness the parallel improvements we are making in Hagberg stability, disease and pest resistance and inherent standing power, not to mention yield.
“However, with the DNA markers we already have at our disposal – and new ones we are identifying every year – we are confident of being able to do so with far greater speed, precision and reliability than traditional crossing and selection ever allowed.”
This encouraging progress cannot come too soon for many UK growers, given the background of the disappointing milling wheat quality consistency so many have suffered in recent years.
Over the past three seasons, indeed, the annual HGCA quality survey shows an average of just 13% of Group 1 samples meeting the full milling specification – the vast majority of failures being related to protein content.
The critical need for varieties combining extra protein with yield is clearly illustrated by the fact that only 30% of Group 1 wheat samples made the full protein spec in this time. This contrasts with comfortably over 50% samples from long-time, gold standard bread wheat, Hereward.
“Alongside key quality reliability improvements, we’re concentrating on building far greater resilience and robustness into UK wheat to cope with what seem to be very much more variable growing seasons,” Ed Flatman added. “In response to this, as well as larger and larger acreages being managed with fewer and fewer men and machines, our breeding efforts are focused on minimising growing risk at every opportunity.
“Only by breeding reliably high yielding wheats with an increasingly consistent range of functional characteristics for different domestic and overseas food markets will we also be able to minimise the marketing risk of having far too large a proportion of our national crop in commodity feed wheats.”
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