Breeding change in UK crop improvement

By Mimi Tanimoto

Cereals 2012For me, June’s highlights were two plant breeding events that I had the chance to attend, where I met members of the UK’s crop breeding community and learned more about this multimillion-pound industry.

The first of these was Cereals 2012 in Lincolnshire, Europe’s biggest event for the arable industry, which this year hosted over 470 exhibitors and 25,000 visitors. One of the greatest attractions here for farmers and growers was the display of around 90 demonstration crops grown in small plots, allowing potential buyers to inspect and compare the different varieties for the right combination of desirable traits.

I met up with Penny Maplestone from the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB), who took me on a whirlwind tour of the 64 hectare site and filled me in on the work of the BSPB. One of BSPB’s main responsibilities is to ensure the collection and distribution of royalties from UK seed sales. Plant breeders are awarded a form of intellectual property on new seed varieties that they produce, called “Plant Breeders’ Rights”, which entitles them to royalty payments on the seeds that they sell. Since the Government stopped funding crop breeding programmes in the 1980s (and the resulting privatisation of many top breeding institutes) plant breeders have relied heavily on this income as their main source of funding for breeding programmes.

A typical wheat breeding programme takes around six to twelve years to complete and, with research and development costs at around £1.5million per year, this doesn’t come cheap. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that any new variety will ever reach the market since legislation dictates that rigorous field trials must be passed before it can be placed on a National List of varieties approved for marketing.

To top things off, the average market lifetime of a cereal variety is only about five years, since fierce competition means that newer, better varieties constantly enter the market and supersede the older ones. Therefore breeders are under extreme pressure to bring out new varieties in order to stay in business.

So how has the movement of breeding programmes from the public sector into the private sector affected the UK seed industry, and has privatisation been a good or bad thing? This was one of the questions addressed at the second event that I attended last month. PBI-100 was a one day conference held at the John Innes Centre in Norwich to celebrate what would have been the centenary of the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) in Cambridge. For the most of last century, PBI was one of the world’s leading centres for crop innovation but like many of the UK’s other public breeding institutes, it was sold to industry in the late ‘80s.

During the meeting, Sir David Baulcombe, Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge, noted that since the remodelling of breeding funding in the UK, scientific progress here has continued to excel – competition within the private sector has provided a driving force for innovation leading to major advances in crop development. However, huge financial outlays and high risks associated with commercial breeding, along with a dependence on income from royalties, means that it is virtually impossible for new breeding companies to set up in the UK.

And while agriculture and crop improvement are higher on the political agenda than ever before, the separation of fundamental research carried out within academia from the applied research done by commercial breeding companies has created a translation gap referred to as the “valley of death”.

Incentives for partnership between academia and industry can bridge this gap, but much work is still needed to allow the translation of basic scientific knowledge into tools for plant breeders to use in a commercial context.

About Mimi Tanimoto

Mimi Tanimoto received her PhD in plant genetics from the University of York, where she studied the mechanisms by which plant hormones control growth and development. She continued to pursue her interest in plant developmental genetics, carrying out postdoctoral research at the University of California Berkeley and the University of Guelph, Canada. Currently Mimi is employed as the Executive Officer of the UK Plant Sciences Federation, based at the Royal Society of Biology in London. Any views expressed in Mimi's articles are her own.
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4 Responses to Breeding change in UK crop improvement

  1. Ben E says:

    Interesting that you mention the “valley of death.” How do young breeders get trained in the UK, or do you have to import them? Might be reminiscent of the quandary that US companies face with lack of classically trained young breeders. As funding for public breeding programs decline, fewer positions are available at universities and fewer students emerge with classical training. New job postings are flooded with applicants with no field experience and no desire to do field work. Difficult to get product from lab to farmer without field testing.

    • Kirsty says:

      Having worked at PBI after I graduated in the early 90’s and since then in various companies, this is one of the issues I’ve noticed over the last 15 years. There is a distinctly aging traditional plant breeder population with field skills, and there seems to be lack of young graduates moving into the area. Hopefully recent publicity around increases in goverment funding at JI may encourage more graduates into plant sciences.

  2. Those with a good bachelor’s or postgraduate degree in plant science/genetics can get hired by breeding companies so I guess most people receive their training within industry. I did a quick Google search and the University of East Anglia runs an MSc course in Plant Genetics and Crop Improvement. But I think you are right that most undergraduates are not receiving the relevant applied training.

  3. Dina says:

    this is very nice.

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