HGCA must increase disease resistance standards, urges leading wheat breeding consultant

HGCA should raise the current minimum disease standards for wheat varieties being considered for the UK Recommended List, urges wheat breeding consultant Bill Angus, who is calling on all involved with the UK wheat crop to wake up to some worrying causes for concern.

Bill Angus, who is now a UK-based International wheat breeding consultant, led the highly successful Limagrain wheat programme for many years: “This was based on delivering high yield potential varieties with good disease resistance. Think of the varieties that came from this strategy such as Claire, Einstein and Alchemy – and more recently Crusoe.

“But the current situation with variety choice is not serving the grower as it should do. In effect, the ‘Recommended List’ is morphing into a ‘Descriptive List’ with no fewer than 45 varieties on the current version.

“I am totally supportive of a Recommended List – it has been at the centre of much of the successful yield improvements that have taken place on farm. But now, as more and more ‘me too’ varieties are being added, there is a real risk of it confusing growers instead of guiding them.”

Bill Angus has three specific areas of concern, and he believes these will be shared by growers, agronomists and the seed trade.

“We must look for excellence, not mediocrity, and one clear route to do this would be through raising the standards which varieties need to meet before being added. This should be a phased operation over a number of years.

“Most important, and underlined by problems this season, we should look at raising the minimum Septoria rating from a ‘4’ to a ‘5’ as soon as possible. It is by far the most damaging foliar disease growers face – we see Septoria every year and the problem is being exacerbated by early sowing and reduced efficacy of available fungicides. We need to move to a better balance between genetic and chemical control and this can only be done by raising the minimum standards for acceptance to the Recommended List.”

He would also like to see higher grain standards being enforced: “We need to raise the specific weight standards as we all know that exporting grain is a key part of the UK wheat growing economy. On the continent – where our competitors in this market are located – there is a wide acceptance of grain quality as an important character to select varieties to be grown.”

As a third proposal, he strongly supports the return of variety pedigrees being shown on the Recommended List: “Many of the current varieties are so closely related that growers may think that they are spreading their risk by choosing different variety names, or even varieties from different breeders. However, they are often from the same genetic pool. A farmer would not consider buying a new fungicide without asking what was in it – so why buy a variety without knowing what varieties were used in its development?”

The HGCA responded as follows

Dr Susannah Bolton, HGCA Head of Research and Knowledge Transfer

“Minimum standards are important in ensuring that no varieties present an unacceptable risk for disease control. The standards are set annually by the RL Project Board who consider proposals from the three Crop Committees. However, the minimum standards are just one way to inform variety selection. For disease resistance, a weighting system is used which factors in the resistance rating and the danger posed by a specific disease, for example septoria tritici resistance has a very high weighting. This means that a higher resistance rating can improve a variety’s overall chance of selection.

“The weighting system is discussed and set by the Board each year in order to ensure that the recommended varieties meet the needs of growers and end-users. It is also important to highlight that automatic recommendation, even for varieties yielding more than 2% above the yield target is not guaranteed if they have very low disease ratings. Overall, this approach gives the greatest level of flexibility for the Recommended List and ensures that varieties with very good levels of disease resistance are promoted rather than just eliminating those with lower resistance ratings.”

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