Organic and low input farmers disadvantaged by current wheat breeding system

A lack of commercial interest from large breeders is limiting organic farmers’ access to suitable wheat varieties in the UK – now though, a group of farmers is aiming to change that.

The current breeding system is leaving organic farmers reliant on varieties bred for conventional, high-input systems, or on imported organic varieties from other countries, which can succumb to disease in the UK climate, say researchers.

Without wide-scale testing of conventional varieties under organic conditions, growers are further disadvantaged with a lack of information about how these varieties perform in organic systems.

To combat this information gap, a team of farmers and researchers has been collaborating, first through an Innovative Farmers field lab and then the LiveWheat programme, to trial organic wheat varieties.

Download the findings from the final report

Their aim is to do what big, conventional breeders have not, and discover which varieties perform best without chemical inputs.

If they’re successful, their discoveries could revolutionise organic wheat growing in the UK, and put growers themselves in the driving seat for future research.

Huge chasm” in the system for organic farmers

It is “almost impossible” to get hold of new organic wheat varieties, says Bill Angus, founder of Angus Wheat Consultants, which runs the largest privately owned, independent wheat breeding programme in the UK, and is supplying the on-farm trials.

“There is a huge chasm between what organic farmers need, and the system they have,” says Mr Angus. “At the moment they get the scraps from the conventional breeding world. The fundamental problem is that the organic market is very small and big companies are not interested in small.”

Dominic Amos, senior crop researcher at Organic Research Centre (ORC), who works across the research of both networks, adds; “Almost all wheat breeding in the UK is done under high input scenarios, then tested under high input conditions.

“Since organic growers are therefore reliant on conventionally bred varieties, companies should at least test these under organic conditions, ideally across farms to account for variability in environments and management.”

But because companies don’t do this and the system for testing new varieties is unlikely to change any time soon, Mr Amos believes the on-farm, farmer-led trials could be the solution.

“We need to work with the system we’ve got so that we can help organic farmers now,” says Mr Amos.

Farmers take the reins

The research began within the Innovative Farmers programme where, with the support of AHDB, ORC has been working with arable farmers in a field lab to grow a large number of wheat varieties under organic conditions to assess traits and identify novel varieties for testing at a larger scale.

Since then, research has gained momentum and Defra funding to build LiveWheat, a network of 15 arable farms trialling varieties under real world, organic conditions. Knowledge coming from Innovative Farmers has been used to inform LiveWheat about which varieties might be useful to test at larger scale in their network.

Longer term, Mr Amos hopes these farmer groups could develop into a participatory plant breeding network.

“We’re finding out from organic farmers what they want in terms of traits beyond yield,” says Mr Amos. “These might include spring vigour to help out-compete and even suppress weeds, which is so important in organic systems, as well as a consistent yield, height, grain quality and disease resistance.”

Oxfordshire contract arable farmer and no-till specialist, James Alexander, is taking part in LiveWheat and has been trialling five varieties on organic land, having first joined the project through the Innovative Farmers’ field lab.

“If you’re a conventional farmer, you can gather as much information as you want as there’s loads available,” says Mr Alexander. “But if you’re organic there is no trial information. You can look at the recommended list for untreated seeds, but they are still treated with herbicides and mineral nitrogen.

“So letting farmers trial varieties on a bigger scale allows us to capture real world data, especially because you’re not all growing it in perfect Lincolnshire soil. By pooling our findings we’re also learning quicker which varieties might be suitable.”

Mixed organic farmer, Charles Hunter-Smart, in Oxfordshire, is hosting a field lab as part of this activity. He says growing organic milling wheat is challenging and hopes the trials will help him identify varieties that are more economically viable for his farm.

“We find it difficult to produce consistently good quality milling wheat,” he says. “Our soils are low in nitrogen and nitrogen is what builds protein. So we’re looking for a variety that is naturally high in protein but not to the detriment of yield.”

Jerry Alford, who coordinated the field lab knows the benefits of farmer led research, “Organic farmers and those who aspire to reduce their inputs need all the tools in the box when it comes to controlling weeds, pests, and diseases. Varietal selection is a key one of these tools.”

“By empowering farmers to develop an understanding of the valuable traits particular wheat varieties can offer for organic and low input farming, this Innovative Farmers field lab will benefit many in the agricultural community. We need more investment in farmer led research like this.”

Key findings from organic wheat variety field lab’s plot trial on Charles’ farm:

  • The Swedish variety Hallfreda has been tested for two years and has yielded consistently well and was also ranked favourite for a combination of desirable traits by a group of organic farmers in the 2019 trial.
  • The French variety Mortimer has been included in the plot trial for three successive years and has shown a reliable and consistent yield ranking. It remains a variety with potential that requires validation through testing at a field scale on commercial organic farms.
  • Crispin has shown adaption for organic farming not least due to its suitability for late drilling, its strong early vigour being quick to reach GS31, and its disease resistance. Unfortunately, Crispin has since fallen from the breeders recommended list, an example of the difficulties faced by organic farmers looking for appropriate commercial varieties using the existing.
  • Costello has also ranked consistently in the top three yielding varieties across all years.
  • The variety Zyatt, which is a popular conventional variety, showed consistently poor performance across all years of the trial.

NB: The findings from the field lab have been provided to give farmers and agronomists guidance to select varieties that need to be tested on and across farms to establish suitability for organic or low input cultivation. However, in the absence of wider scale research, the only way for a farmer to truly understand which variety may suit their farm and management is to test themselves.

Get involved in farmer led research

To keep informed of how this field lab and others are progressing sign up and become a member of the Innovative Farmers’ network. Got your own idea for a field lab? Submit it here and we'll pin it on our online pinboard

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