Rothamsted and BBSRC launch "20:20 Wheat"

19th Jun 2012

New plans to help increase potential wheat yields in the UK to 20 tonnes per hectare within the next 20 years

Average wheat yield of 9 tonnes per hectare must increase to feed growing population

1 tonne per hectare increase in yield worth £318M per year at the farm gate

Plans to help increase potential wheat yields in the UK to 20 tonnes per hectare within the next 20 years have been launched by Rothamsted Research scientists and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The new 20:20 Wheat ® programme was unveiled at the UK Cereals 2012 event today and aims to provide the knowledge base and tools to tackle food security challenges for a growing population.

It is hoped that this programme will bring significant economic benefit to UK farmers as every one tonne per hectare increase in yield is estimated to be worth £318M per year at the farm gate.

Wheat provides a fifth of human calories, but since 1980 the rate of increase in wheat yields has declined. The average farm yield of wheat in the UK is currently around nine tonnes per hectare and the world average is about three tonnes per hectare.

The UK Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, has stated the world is heading for a "perfect storm" of events where demands for energy, water and food will increase dramatically with an underlying threat of climate change, over the next 20-40 years. He said "the challenge for global agriculture is to grow more food on not much more land, using less water, fertiliser and pesticides than we have historically done".

The programme, which is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), will seek ways to improve the quantity and quality of wheat, for example through genotype improvement, improved photosynthetic efficiency, altered canopy and root architecture, modified seed development and enhanced nutrient utilisation efficiency.

The head of the 20:20 Wheat ® programme at Rothamsted Research, Professor Martin Parry stated that "wheat is the world's number one staple crop and has not benefitted from the attention afforded to corn and soybeans in recent years". He believes that "Rothamsted Research has the established collaborations and vision to deliver this programme" as it has "world-renowned expertise in photosynthesis, plant architecture, nutrient utilisation, wheat bioinformatics and wheat pathogenomics."

But the programme is not just about UK wheat yield. It is hoped that this ambitious target will help focus efforts to create multiple technologies that could benefit the world. Getting stable wheat yield increases in Africa, for example, by 2 tonnes per hectare could also have a significant impact on global food security.

The Director of Rothamsted Research Professor Maurice Moloney said: "The purpose of setting ourselves a grand challenge like 20:20 Wheat ® is much more complex than the achievement of the final objective. It also serves as a focal point for effort and a unifying theme for collaborative ventures, which could not be achieved by an individual or a single team". He added, "take NASA's objective to put a man on the moon. This Apollo program not only achieved its goal, but also generated hundreds of new products which are commonplace today including lens coatings on spectacles, integrated circuits for computing, the FAX machine and athletic shoes from Moonboots".

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "In the middle of the 19th century wheat yields were 1 tonne per hectare. Thanks to improved farming methods and agri-science research we see closer to nine tonnes per hectare in the UK today. In order to continue to feed a growing global population, we need to double that yield in the next two decades and we know that this is possible because we've seen the potential in other crops. The 20:20 Wheat ® programme will help us address this challenge in wheat in a number of ways, such as improving the way wheat uses the sun's energy, better tolerance to stress or resistance to pest and disease."

Rothamsted Research ideally positioned to be a world leader in wheat research. It is the longest running agricultural research station in the world, providing cutting-edge science and innovation for nearly 170 years with a mission to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production. Its strength lies in its integrated, multidisciplinary approach to research in plant and soil science.

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