The synthetic hexaploid wheat, specifically designed for planting in the UK, has been developed to boost yields. It emerges at a time when Britain’s biggest brands such as Hovis, Weetabix and McVitie’s are having to roll back on ‘100% British wheat’ claims due to availability shortages caused by poor weather.
Bill Clark, NIAB commercial technical director in Cambridge, told FoodManufacture.co.uk that three breeders were currently involved in the development of the wheats that have yielded up to 30% more in recent years, despite cold, wet seasons that depressed yield.
‘Reached a plateau’
“Wheat yields across Europe have reached a plateau,” he said. “In trials, yields are going up slightly but not fast enough to meet the global food security challenges – not just climate change but population growth. We need to increase food production much more rapidly than we’ve been able to.”
To try to achieve a step-change in yields, the scientists returned to the original parents of modern wheat – a rare hybrid cross that happened 10,000 years ago, which all wheat now derives from, before it crossed with a second grass species.
“There are three parents to all the modern wheat, derived from that natural hybridisation,” explained Clark. “In perfecting that wheat through quality selection, we’ve lost some of the genetic diversity.
‘Thousands of new genes’
“So we’ve gone back to a one of those original parents – a goat grass – and crossed it with a modern durum wheat. In doing that, we’ve reintroduced a whole load of genetic diversity – thousands of new genes. The key thing is, it’s close enough to wheat that we can cross it into modern wheat in a normal crossing programme.”
While the initial goal was to find ways to increase yields, disease resistance and drought tolerance, he added that the research could eventually lead to higher yield wheat being grown of breadmaking quality.
“That would happen further down the line, but it just so happens that we were using Xi19, a quality breadmaking wheat, as our modern elite crossing variety,” he added. “That means we might have some quality characteristics coming through, although it wasn’t one of our main targets.