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Novel crops have real promise for arable rotation

Topic Overview

Credible diversification options for farmers

The Agri-TechE workshop brought together a mixture of farmers, scientists and innovators to talk about the opportunities and challenges of developing new crops for the UK. It provided the first opportunity to hear presentations from the winners of the Seeding Awards, short pump-priming projects aimed at exploring the potential of new crops and varieties for the UK arable rotation.

James Phillips, Senior Portfolio Manager for BBSRC comments: “There was a real excitement in the room about the potential to improve the profitability, sustainability and resilience of agriculture. The supply-chain mapping studies were particularly interesting and should inform a more realistic appraisal of where efforts could be focused.

“I was encouraged by examples like durum wheat, rye and sunflower, where substantial agronomic knowledge and processing capacity already exists in the UK. New varieties of these crops, with higher yields in the UK climate, could provide credible diversification opportunities for farmers.

“The researchers presented on a wide range of crops – amaranth, teff, durum wheat, rye, naked oats and sunflower – all with wide ranging benefits.”

Seeding Awards investigate markets and enablers

The successful institutions for the Seeding Awards (and the project leads) include: The University of Dundee (Robbie Waugh); Durham University (Adrian Brennan); University of Edinburgh (Steven Spoel, Theodora Lola-Luz, Sandy Hetherington); IBERS (Catherine Howarth); John Innes Centre (Noam Chayut, Simon Orford); University of Liverpool (James Hartwell);  NIAB (Phil Howell); University of Oxford (Gail Preston, Floren Scrafton); University of Sheffield (Jonathan Leake) and University of Warwick (Graham Teakle, Lauren Chappell).

Summaries of some of the presentations are included below.

Is flax a sustainable answer to throwaway fashion?

Flax and linseed are members of the same family, linum usitatissimum, ancient plants that have been used for thousands of years.

Linseed is grown to produce oil but the seed is classed as a ‘superfood’ due to its rich content of essential fats, Omega 3 and Omega 6, vitamins and minerals. Flax is grown for its fibre and is traditionally very good for making rope, string and, of course, linen. 

However, flax also has potential to provide valuable fibres for biocomposites and textiles, and also for insulation, fibre board and biofuel, explained Dr Adrian Brennan of Durham University.

The versatile plant could be used to provide renewable building materials and sustainable clothing. However, it would need considerable investment in commercial scale processing and requires specialist equipment for harvesting.

The absence of UK-based breeding means there is a need for locally adapted crops, which would currently be risky for farmers.

Flax - Adrian Brennan

Alternative proteins that improve soil health

Field bean, small naked oat, lupins, pea and red clover were among the minor crops discussed by Catherine Howarth of IBERS.

The crops offered nitrogen fixation and strong root structures to improve soil health, while offering enrichment to forage crops and alternatives sources of protein.

There is potential for an extract from Red Clover to provide a source of protein to replace imported soybean for human and animals diets.

These resilient crop plants merit investment, she concluded.

What is a minor crop? - Catherine Howarth

Here comes the sun – sunflowers are a blooming good opportunity

A team from the University of Warwick and Limagrain discussed the potential of sunflowers across cut flowers, bird feed and oil seed.

Sunflowers are already grown and work well as part of arable rotation and this means there is knowledge and expertise established in the UK. With warmer summers and current breeding for earlier-maturing varieties, this spring-sown crop will be more suited to the UK.

Processing plants are able to switch from processing oilseed rape to sunflowers, but the competitiveness of UK-sourced crop for producing oil is uncertain.
The team are building a network of partners to collaborate and build the opportunities. This includes creating a database of germplasm, defining key traits for genetic improvement and to determine differences in Microbiome between varieties in each sector. Plans also include carrying out lifecycle analysis and undertaking detailed market analysis.

Lauren Chappell of Warwick University concluded that the HelianthNet project was creating a virtuous circle with researchers, growers and processors all working together to give it a go.

Here comes the sun(flower) - Guy Barker

Baby quinoa – a UK grown superfood? 

Quinoa has been hyped as a ‘super food’ and does offer some strong nutritional credentials, according to Prof. Gail Preston of the University of Oxford. This crop is stress tolerant, has good yields and, along with other chenopods, could be grown in the UK.

Chenopods are under-utilised in the UK, eg shoot-to-root-to-seed crops, beets, chard, spinach and quinoa. Amaranth, another relative, is gluten free, although the non GF market is the most important.

Prof Preston comments that there are distinct opportunities in quinoa, where growing and importing from South America is not the best approach: “We are the third largest growers of quinoa in Europe, with potential to grow all the UK requirements. There is established agronomic practices offering good yields and good environmental sustainability, according to our lifecycle assessment.”

A related seed crop, Kaniwa (baby quinoa), can be puffed, popped or supplied as tenderstem and this offers new opportunities for the UK food sector.

Is this a pulse raising opportunity?

Despite its potential to be a major crop, soya is seen as a longer-term prospect. As a warm-season, short day legume, the growing season is short, and harvest can be late, so it is a risk and is only grown in the south and east of England.

UK imports of chickpea and lentil are c. 85,000 tonnes, but they are only likely to be minor crops in the UK, for specialist uses rather than generic markets.

Chickpea’s sensitivity to frosts and waterlogging, and its failure to mature in cool, wet summers, mean that a substantial breeding initiative would be required to develop suitable varieties.

Lentils are cold tolerant and more suited to UK soil conditions but there would need to be investment in developing suitable varieties and appropriate agronomy.

Dr Phil Howell of NIAB says there is a need to develop varieties of these crops for the UK that are early-season cold tolerant and earlier maturing. The key target market being premium human consumption. NIAB is working with Viridian Seeds to induce variation in 30 key lines across the different crops as the first stage in this process.

Noam Chayut

Other speakers included:

Simon Orford, John Innes Centre
Jonathan Leake, University of Sheffield
James Hartwell, University of Liverpool

Briefing last modified March 2023.