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Studying at Cambridge


20 March 2014: Richard Summers, RAGT

Richard Summers, cereal breeding and research lead at RAGT Seeds and chairman of the British Society of Plant Breeders

Wheat breeding for sustainable productivity, an oxymoron waiting to happen?


Richard Summers, cereal breeding and research lead at RAGT Seeds and chairman of the British Society of Plant Breeders


The spiritual home of UK wheat breeding is to be found in the arable fields around Cambridge. It has a long and by and large successful history, increasing yields and improving end use quality whilst maintaining and broadening disease resistance. Great productivity gains since the 1950’s have relied on three synergistic innovations: cheap nitrogenous fertilizers, effective pesticides (particularly herbicides) and improved crop genetics.


I will briefly discuss the history and explain how rates of genetic gain can be maintained in the future but must accelerate. Progress will be made by the dissection of yield and other QTL, the stacking of additive alleles and the exploitation of ‘new’ genes from related species. However it is impossible to imagine that sufficient progress can be made over the long term without 
more fundamental genetic manipulation of photosynthesis, pest resistance and plant phenology.

In addition, yield increases will not be achieved at the farm level without agronomy advance to break the observed on farm yield plateau and sufficient nutrient being available to satisfy the genetic potential of the crop.  In my opinion we have a choice between achieving very high yields per  unit crop area which will require significant inputs (particularly nitrogen) but potentially release land for other (environmental) use, or to reduce inputs and maintain productivity by increasing the land area farmed. The question is which choice will be the most sustainable?