'Ukraine was the pin in the hand grenade of food security and it has now been pulled – meaning the repercussions of the war are likely reverberate for at least 5-10 years'

There was a good deal of interest last week in reports that scientists believed global wheat production could be doubled by keying into the crop's 'untapped genetic potential' and breeding varieties specifically targeted to local conditions.

A team of international experts, led by the UK’s Rothamsted Research, said this could be done by utilising the vast genetic variation available in global and historical wheat gene banks – along with modern techniques such as speed breeding and gene editing (see report on page 22).

But while defining a crop’s ‘genetic yield potential’ as the highest yield achievable by an idealised variety – a plant with an optimal genome that allows it to capture water, sunlight and nutrients more efficiently than any other – is a bit of a theoretical concept and one which could prove slightly more than difficult to achieve in practice.

“Current wheat cultivars are, on average, only at the half-way point with respect to the yields they could produce given the mismatches between their genetics and local wheat growing conditions,” said the scientist who led the research, adding that this meant global wheat production could be doubled by the genetic improvement of local wheat cultivars - without increasing the global area of wheat grown.

Using existing data on the contribution of different genes to individual plant traits such as size, shape, metabolism and growth, the researchers ran millions of computer simulations to design ‘perfect’ wheat plants that were tailored to their local environments.

The simulations were based on extensive data on the natural genetic variation underpinning the traits, including tolerance and response to drought and heat stresses, the size and orientation of the light-capturing upper leaves, and the timing of key life cycle events.

In order to achieve the sort of increases that the report indicated, we’d be looking at growing the right variety in the right area under ideal conditions – but while it might be easy to dismiss such computer simulations as pie in the sky, if it was possible to achieve even a fraction of that improvement by breeding varieties more suited to specific conditions it would be wrong to dismiss such an approach as unrealistic.

But, coming back down to earth with a bump, and on a more immediate note, there was a call to wheat breeders to up their game on the soft wheat front – and to try to introduce some of the disease resistance characteristics currently becoming available in hard wheat varieties into the soft varieties we grow for Scotland’s main markets of feed and distilling.

Speaking at last week’s well-attended Arable Scotland event, the SRUC’s Professor Fiona Burnett said that while the parental lines used for soft wheat might make the introduction of traits such as better septoria resistance more difficult, the growing gap in levels of resistance between soft and hard varieties was becoming increasingly noticeable.

However, with the huge increase in input costs, those who attended Arable Scotland heard that it looks like we growers, too, will need to up our game and turn increasingly to knowledge, and new skills rather than the fertiliser bag, or spray-can to help us maintain our crop yields.

For that was another of the messages to come out of the event. It was made plain that the current hike in the costs of inputs is unlikely to see any reversal in the near future – and that cash flow issues will need to be addressed.

As someone said: “Ukraine was the pin in the hand grenade of food security – and it has now been pulled,” meaning the repercussions of the war are likely reverberate for at least 5-10 years. While grain prices might have gone up, they’ve also shown that they can fall back fairly swiftly – and with more wheat likely to go into the ground this year there’s no guarantee that they’ll remain at the current level.

But, as we all know from experience, while grain prices are likely to remain volatile, input costs, once they’ve gone up are considerably less likely to drop back down again.

It’s a fact, though, that while the early or forward purchase of fertiliser before this season’s price hikes together with this season’s higher commodity prices might have given some arable farmers a 'get out of jail free' card for the 2022 harvest, crunch time for many is likely to approach with financing the 2023 harvest – as fertiliser prices are likely to remain high but there is no guarantee that grain prices will remain at their current elevated levels.

Speakers at the Arable Scotland event said that there had already been some indication of an increased uptake in many of the principles of integrated crop management as a means of reducing the cost base of growing crops, as well as representing a growing underlying desire to adopt a wider range of practices to address crop management issues.

While part of this new approach – which relies less on the fertiliser bag and on the spray-can – revolves around adopting new technologies and techniques, knowledge of more traditional practices which make full use of animal manures, crop rotations and legumes to build and maintain soil fertility are also likely to play an important role in maintaining productivity under the new regime of higher input costs.

It might not be as straightforward, or as risk-free as using more fert or more spray, but using rotations sensibly, along with placing more importance on the use of resistant varieties while also picking up on other useful elements of an integrated approach, could help save costs.

Dr Ali Karley, an agro-ecologist at the James Hutton Institute, who also spoke at some of the Arable Scotland ‘Conversations’ agreed, pointing out that approaches like inter-cropping could reduce the need for the levels of fertiliser which would generally be required for a monoculture crop. She added that these could also give crop protection benefits, meaning such an approach could give financial benefits as well as enhancing biodiversity.

“A lot of the people who come to events like this are here to learn about practices which might not necessarily be new, having often been used traditionally – but the knowledge of how to apply them isn’t necessarily there,” she argued.

So one of the other key themes to emerge at the event was the important role which creating the systems for sharing the existing knowledge of such practices and making the experiences of the people who were pioneering new approaches – including enhancing biodiversity and storing carbon – available to more growers:

“It is crucial that we help find ways to share this information in an efficient way and allow people to adopt it and adapt it to their own systems – and how we should best go about this is an area which requires some good thought,” said Dr Karley.

Research into the best way of effectively disseminating this sort of information had shown that a diversity of approaches was important in spreading such knowledge – as different age cohorts and genders showed considerable differences in how they would seek out new knowledge: “So just doing it one way won’t reach everybody- and from social media to agronomist’s advice, there is a need a diversity of approaches,” she added.

Professor Burnett pointed out that a study which had looked at how growers got their information in crop production products had shown that the manufacturers were often viewed as being biased, while the technical press was often favoured.

On-line farming forums were often read, but they weren’t widely trusted and while first-hand scientific information was trusted, growers tended not to read such papers – and relied instead on their agronomists to translate this information for them.

So, while you might want to choose your own way of picking up on new information, it pays to remember the old maxims that knowledge is power – and that every day is a school day.