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Uncorking the genetic ‘GINie’ for British crops and the value of academia-industry collaboration

Defra’s Genetic Improvement Networks Conference “Uncorking the genetic ‘GINie’ for British crops”

The first ever joint meeting of all the DEFRA funded Genetic Improvement Networks (GIN) was a success. It was held on 22nd February 2016 and hosted at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. The event brought together over a hundred people from the UK plant breeding community, including plant breeding companies, academics, AHDB, NFU, BBSRC, KTN and DEFRA.

GINs are funded by DEFRA and are the UK’s longest agri-food supply chain research collaborations. GINs provide a platform for the improvement of Britain’s most important crops, identifying emerging challenges and enabling them to be addressed by a community of UK researchers, breeders and end-users. GINs were designed to help bridge the translational gap between academic research and the market. The breeding industry was recognised as one of the pivotal links in the delivery of new technology to the farm.

Tom Heap, the presenter of the BBC Countryfile,
opened and chaired the event. Jack Watts, Lead Analyst, Cereals and Oilseeds, AHDB, gave an economic outlook for UK farmers pointing out the importance of economic and technical competitiveness. In his view, genetic improvement is very important for generating solutions to agricultural challenges. In many cases, genetic improvement of crops could secure premiums for the UK farmers, as for example for the UK wheat. He also spoke about the importance of risk management and resilience of the UK farming, and the role of R&D and innovation in achieving this. He noted recent successes and opportunities with pulses. UK pulses suffered reduction in cropping area over the last decade, however are on the up in 2015. Pulses could potentially compete with global soya if UK can differentiate and become more competitive. According to the report by the Andersons Centre, commissioned by the John Innes Centre, UK pulse sector could double in size and value in the next five years. He was encouraged to see the £1m investment by Dunns, one of the largest pulse and agricultural edible pulses processors in the UK, in the new 4200m2 bagged seed store and upgrades to the technology, which represents a significant increase in the capacity for handling and sales of pulses.

Heloise Tierney, Head of GMO and EU Crops regimes at DEFRA, presented DEFRA’s Food and Farming 25 year Plan noting the role of exports, productivity, supply chain resilience, and consumer confidence in delivering this new ambitious plan. George Eustice, Minister of State for Farming, Food and the Marine Environment, spoke about the importance of genetic improvement and increasing crop productivity via new varieties, better crop protection and more precise inputs. The topic of the new breeding techniques, and their role in agricultural innovation, was brought up during the discussion and reference was made to the review of the advanced genetic techniques for crop improvement by the Science and Technology Committee of the UK Parliament. The minister emphasised that the UK Government position is that the techniques need to be fit for purpose, and their assessment need to be rooted on scientific evidence. He also noted government investment in four Centres for Agricultural Innovation, which will create capacity in the UK to translate agricultural innovation into commercial opportunities for UK businesses.

Dr. Peter Werner, the breeder at KWS UK Ltd, representing British Society of Plant Breeders, gave breeders perspective on the value of GINs. The concept of GINs was build around the agreement of all stakeholders (research institutes, universities, members of the the British Society of Plant Breeders, agronomists, and growers) to make all outputs to be publicly available. There was a strong emphasis on building a network, and bringing public funded research and industry closer. GINs created germplasm resources (diversity sets and mapping populations), genetic resources (genetic maps and molecular markers), and identified sources of resistance to pathogens. Beyond the genetic and germplasm resources, GINs developed new technologies, breeding and selection tools, and trained a big cohort of scientists and students creating a pool of talent. The value of GINs was also in developing contacts between researchers and industry, building relationships between competitor companies leading to pre-competitive collaborative consortia, spearheading or feeding into other publicly funded projects, and creating many synergistic effects. GINs helped to raise a profile and ensure a greater recognition of the international nature of Plant Breeding with many breeding companies operating across the borders. Peter Werner emphasised that going forward, it would be worthwhile to ensure a continuity of the established networks, however there is a need to refresh objectives in the light of new challenges of plant breeding.

Each GIN presentation showed that GINs had a systems view of crops improvement, whose aim is not to achieve only higher yields but a broader, deep rooted resilience, underpinning the development of varieties with better resource use efficiency, disease and pest resistance, and longer shelf-life as well as automated phenotyping platforms and precision farming appliances.  Germplasm studies and marker assisted selection within PCGIN and OREGIN will underpin the development of new varieties with better quality.

Sue Kennedy, Head of Vegetable Plant Breeding at Elsoms Seeds, spoke about the specific challenges of the vegetable breeding, such as huge variety of crops and traits, with consumer demanding attractive visual characteristics and nutritional quality alongside with agronomical traits. She emphasised, that VeGIN provided breeders with access to a library of information that can be used to create pre-breeding material that will help to combine agronomic traits and quality.

Dr. Claire Domoney, Project Coordinator of the Pulse Crops Genetic Improvement network (PCGIN), gave an overview of PCGIN and noted that 2016 is the international year of pulses. Patrick Mitton, Chief Executive, PeaWise Ltd spoke about the nutritional value and health benefits of peas, with white pea flour having the highest fibre and protein content compared with wheat, potato, rice, and corn flours.

Prof Kim Hammond-Kosack, Coordinator of the Wheat Genetic Improvement Network (WGIN), spoke about the key successes of the WGIN, which enabled the plant breeding community to exploit natural variation, develop new breeding tools, combine the existing public and private resources, and helped to realise economic, environmental, and consumer benefits.

Dr. Vasilis Gegas, Head of Oilseeds Breeding at Limagrain, gave an overview of the political and economic environment for the breeding companies. Key drivers shaping R&D and breeding efforts include economic viability of the crop through yield stability, sustainability, commercial relevance, risk management, and compliance with current regulation and rules.

The event also included two elevator pitches. Prof. Robbie Waugh, from the James Hutton Institute, was pitching for barley GIN, noting that the key issue with barley is the sustainability of the long-term supply, the need for developing and translating genetic resources and tools to ensure this, and the ability to utilise the existing strong collaboration between the academics and industries that make barley products. Dr. Tim Langdon, from the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), was emphasizing the need for OatsGIN, with oats being used extensively for human and animal consumption, and the need for better breeding tools.  Both oats and barely can hugely benefit from the research done on wheat. Recent sequencing advances may soon allow findings to be relevant to other crops.

The conference ended with a panel discussion led by Tom Heap. Panellists discussed what could be done in future to improve British crops; how to develop future structures; and who should have the ownership of the knowledge and commercial advantage. Professor Kim Hammond-Kosack acknowledged a huge risk taking for breeding companies every time they breed a new trait, and that they rely on a partnership with public research to spread the risks. Panellists discussed how, looking forward, UK research, commercial plant breeding and growers will best address future challenges, drawing upon these unique collaborations established through GINs.

The GINs made a case to DEFRA for continued financial support. The funding is confirmed for one more additional year for several GINs, with possible extension. Future support could be potentially implemented through the Food and Farming 25 year plan. There is a need for different funders and stakeholders to work together in order to secure on-going support for GINs, and DEFRA is anticipating to engage with AHDB and NFU in discussions about ways to maintain and build upon the valuable networks and resources created through GINs. 

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