WHEAt and barley Legacy for Breeding Improvement


Development of breeding tools to support the breeding sector

New, genome-based breeding tools are currently being developed by all of the largest seed companies like Monsanto or Dupont. WHEALBI, by helping EU seed companies, either large ones like KWS or SMEs to develop their own capacities, relying on new markers identified in the whole exome regions, will enable them to maintain their efficiency and competitiveness among the world seed companies. The economic impact is hard to estimate, but undoubtedly, the weakening of European seed industry (if they miss the genome revolution), would have a huge impact on EU farmers independence for seed supply.

Moreover, the technological and statistical tools that will be developed in WHEALBI, and the proof of concept made on the exome sequences will place EU research and industry in an ideal position to valorise future developments in genomics, e.g. the full genome resequencing with access to all regulatory regions (which will come once sequencing costs are reduced by new technologies).
Again this will help maintain EU scientists and breeders in the first circle of top world achievements in cereal genomics.

Unique to WHEALBI is the focus on further development of genome-based breeding tools aimed at utilizing these in pre-breeding. It is widely acknowledged that our increased understanding of the genome will make the combination of favourable alleles more efficient in modern plant breeding, however, there is a risk of effectually running out of useful genetic variability within the pool of European wheat and barley varieties due to genetic ‘bottlenecks’ generated by selective breeding.

In WHEALBI, we are committed to develop new genome-based strategies for more efficient transfer of useful genetic diversity for important yield-related traits into European wheat and barley varieties, and to use these technologies to facilitate the process of enhancing the level of useful diversity. Both the technologies and the germplasm developed will be freely available to the entire wheat and barley breeding community, essentially benefitting European cereal production as a whole.

Development of new varieties with increased genetic variation and improved agronomic, processing and nutritional characteristics to support the farming sector

Succeeding in filling the “yield gap” of European wheat and barley production, i.e. developing new varieties able to produce as much as the current varieties in low input and minimum-till conservation crop management systems under a changing climate, will help to maintain the gross value of major cereals production (roughly 36 billion euros per annum). We anticipate that WHEALBI will enable breeding industries to drive up on farm yields. With a reasonable figure of 30 kg/ha/year on average, across all EU countries, this would lead to about 50 more million tons in the decade following WHEALBI. This represents a gross value of around 10 billion euros and is certainly crucial for the maintenance of EU export capacity.

Widening the range of available adapted cereal genotypes

The efficient exploitation of a huge amount of untapped biodiversity of small grain cereal genetic resources, including wild relatives and landraces, through genome based methods will ensure the potential of long-term genetic progress, particularly for specific adaptive traits to crop management systems which have been little considered up to now.

Environmental impact of new varieties grown in improved and/or novel management practices

The European Directive 2009/128 on the sustainable use of pesticides makes it mandatory to implement Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for all EU agriculture by 2014. Small grain cereals (of which 90% is wheat and barley) are grown on about 38 million hectares in EU, of which at least 50% (20 M hectares) are treated with fungicides, at an average cost of 50 euros per ha. Development of new varieties with durable resistance to diseases will enable farmers to reduce the use of fungicides, saving around 500 million euros per annum while maintaining yield and safer production of grains. This output will enable farmers to comply with the IPM requirements, and perhaps also with future requirements of end-users regarding grain quality (less mycotoxins and residues).

Adopting tilling conservation on at least 50% of the EU cereals growing areas will stop the degradation and even improve the soil organic matter content. In addition to the positive impact on soil erosion and fertility, this will lead to the sequestration of substantial quantities of carbon. For example, a report published by the ECCC (European Climate Change Programme) Working Group Sinks Related to Agricultural Soil suggested that conservation tillage systems could potentially sequester >0-3 t CO2 ha-1 y-1 and across Europe this could potentially sequester.

Moreover, nitrogen fertilisation is responsible of 60 % of the world emissions of N²O, a gas which has a 310 fold greater glasshouse effect compared to CO2. It is estimated (IPCC 2007) that for each ton of nitrogen fertilizer applied, about 8 t of CO2 equivalent is released in the atmosphere. The development of varieties with improved nitrogen use efficiency may reduce N application by 25%, thus saving nearly 1 million tons of fertilizer and reducing emissions by 8 Mt CO2 eq per year, i.e. another 15% of the annual CO2 emission by agriculture. Nitrogen efficient varieties, combined with appropriate management systems, will also reduce or nearly eliminate nitrate leaching, thus improving the quality of surface and ground water.

Contribution to food security through more productive, diversified and resilient European cereal production

WHEALBI outcomes will enable EU agriculture to maintain its cereal production at a high level with more limited year to year variations, which is not the case in other exporting countries such as Australia, Argentina, USA and Russia (for the latest, 62 Mt in 2010, 38 Mt in 2012). This will have positive impact on world production stability, limiting the volatility of cereal prices which has dramatic consequences on farmer incomes and consumers well-being, particularly in developing countries, but also on poor people in developed ones. The genetic and agronomic prediction tools that will be developed in WP5 for grain protein composition will enable breeders to more efficiently develop varieties with specific compositions, therefore best fitting end-users requirements, even for niche markets (e.g. low content, extensible proteins for biscuits, high content, high dough strength for buns).

This will contribute to higher yield potential and security in conjunction with improved sustainability of wheat and barley production under changing climate and low input conditions. Reinforcement of the sustainability of agriculture is one of the major policy directions of the new CAP, where the pillar on environmental impact of agriculture is clearly reinforced, while tackling the climate challenge in Europe is of major importance in the EU2020 strategy. This climate change issue is contained in all the EU2020 policies (CAP, Cohesion Policy, Horizon 2020, etc), and for instance 25% of the future CAP budget is related to climate change issues (Renssen, 2012).

Contribution to the creation of new (regional) markets for food, feed and non-food products by meeting demands of consumers for cereals with increased nutritional and health benefits

The development of diseases resistant varieties and sustainable cropping systems will improve food security by simultaniously reducing the use of pesticides and mycotoxin contamination. In addition, the statistical and pre-breeding tools that will be developed in WHEALBI applied to yield and yield stability as a proof of concept can be further used to improve other traits such as the composition in micronutrients and antioxidants. Moreover the gene-based modelling strategy can be applied to predict grain composition for health promoting components such as fibres, minerals, etc.