The most widely grown crops in the world are small grain cereals such as wheat, barley and oats. They provide on average 60 per cent of our calorie intake as well as protein, fibre, minerals and amino acids. We have become dependent on their relatively high yields and their suitability for cultivation and storage. The gluten in wheat makes it especially useful, allowing dough to be processed into bread, pasta and noodles.
Conserving the seed and therefore the genetic diversity of small grain cereals is essential for securing our future food supply. Historic and wild varieties might contain properties for improved human nutrition, resistance to drought, more efficient nutrient use or better disease resistance. Varieties of the future might need less pesticides and fertiliser and might be able to cope with changes to our climate.
Public collections of seeds, and data on their genetics, make a special contribution to food security.
The most comprehensive UK public seed collection for small grain cereal crops is at The Germplasm Resources Unit. It includes the largest UK collection of wheat and its relatives, around 10,000 varieties, collected from the wild and from pre-industrial agriculture from all over the world. It houses over 10,000 varieties of barley, 3000 of oats and one of the world’s most actively used collections for peas (3500 lines).
GRU conserves commercial and research lines, most of which are free of patents and intellectual property rights. They are made freely available to researchers and breeders worldwide. Details of this material are available in web searchable databases [link] which are currently being extended.
Living collections of seed are maintained under low temperature and humidity, with around 1,200 lines grown each year to regenerate stock. They are combined with the latest knowledge of crop genetics which is helping to unlock more of their value. Staff at GRU are able to identify historic, wild and modern varieties with traits of interest for research or for plant breeders and work with them in trying to improve the crops of tomorrow.
Time team traits
Crop domestication and breeding increased yields, particularly during the Green Revolution of the 1960s. Dwarfed varieties became predominant because they produced more grain. But some taller varieties, for example from the 1800s, are able to grow in poorer soils.
In the 1920s and 30s, Arthur Earnest Watkins, a lecturer in Agriculture at the University of Cambridge, used his connections with the London Board of Trade to collect wheat varieties from around the world. He galvanised staff at British consulates to collect 1,200 samples, adapted to local conditions, and return them to London. These ‘land races’ are an important part of the genetic diversity available at GRU.
Annual field demonstrations on JIC land bring the collections to life. Researchers, breeders or specialist groups such as thatchers can see and discuss the growing plants and how their genetic variation affects their appearance.
Land races, historic collections, wild relatives, elite cultivars and synthetic varieties are added to, for example with samples of all cereals that enter the UK market. Research at JIC and other research organisations will provide fresh sources of diversity, for example through the work of the wheat pre-breeding programme.