Friday, 22 February 2013

Nuffield - Rothamsted Revisited

Well here's the deal, this picture demonstrates to me the challenge that we have set ourselves very clearly. Don't be mistaken though the 20 by 20 is in 20 years not by 2020.  The aim of the project at Rothamsted, under the main heading of 20:20 is to provide the knowledge-base and tools to increase UK wheat yield potential to 20 tonnes/ha in 20 years time.
I turned up on Thursday the 14th February to visit Dr Malcolm Hawkesford to start off with.  One of the main areas of interest I picked up on was the aspect of light capture.  Effectively as farmers we are turning sunlight into food, so how can we maximise that genetic potential?  Currently the yield gap between the recommended list varieties and what is produced on farm is getting wider.  Therefore we have the genetic potential to get to these higher yields, there must therefore be something holding back  the farm yields?  Not sure what that is yet but when I find it I will let you know!  Malcolm's team is working with other research organisations as part of a wider drive to learn more about wheat genetics and how yield is built.  One key aspect of this is Carbon Dioxide.  If more CO2 can get into the plant, faster and with the plant using less energy, more carbon can be manufactured and turned into grain.  The plants therefore become more efficient.  Climate change will result in more CO2 in the atmosphere so some yield improvement will come through this process anyway but not at the pace required to feed the worlds population.  One aspect I hadn't considered was looking at the quality of wheat being grown.  A higher yield will usually have a lower protein content (nitrogen dilution) so this may effect the desire to maximise wheat yield for some markets.
After a quick lunch I caught up with Professor Martin Parry, Head of Plant Science who is leading the project.  Martin explained the mathematical modelling that has been done to ascertain the maximum yield potential of wheat using the best characteristics form current varieties.  We also talked about the efficiencies of photosynthesis between different crops (wheat poor and maize good), about light interception and how the roots need enough water to maintain maximum photosynthesis.  This could be a limiting factor in the future.  If the plant has enough water though, increased photosynthesis will result in a better water use efficiency i.e. it uses less water per calorific output.  In order to negate the effects of a late season drought could varieties mature earlier, but would this compromise the requirement for a long slow grain fill, or looking the the research from the John Innes Centre, speeding up the time to flowering to help bring the whole process forward?  Lots of questions still be be investigated!  My thanks again to Martin and Malcolm for spending time telling me about their research.

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