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Colman’s and scientists helped to bring English mustard back from brink

11:14 12 July 2014

Peter Isaac, scientific director for IDNA Genetics at the John Innes Centre, who worked on a project to analyse mustard seed after yields dropped significantly. Picture: Denise Bradley

Peter Isaac, scientific director for IDNA Genetics at the John Innes Centre, who worked on a project to analyse mustard seed after yields dropped significantly. Picture: Denise Bradley

copyright: Archant 2014

The remarkable part Norfolk played in the rescue of the mustard growing industry from the brink of devastation can be revealed today.

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Mustard growing at Claxton Manor Estate in South NorfolkMustard growing at Claxton Manor Estate in South Norfolk

A combination of bad weather and poor harvests had threatened the production of English mustard.

City scientists used a jar of mustard seeds stored at the Colman’s factory to identify what was causing the dramatic fall in yields and helped to form a recovery plan. An English Mustard Growers co-operative, formed in the wake of the crisis, has seen membership increase as more farmers return to growing mustard – helping produce 60pc of the seed needed by Colman’s.

Scientists in Norwich used a jar of mustard seeds stored at the city’s Colman’s factory to bring the spice back from the brink barely seven years after yields collapsed to an all time low.

The situation was so serious it threatened to put an end to the production of homegrown seeds used to make the iconic condiment.

The white Gedney Mustard seed which forms part of the Colman's Mustard recipeThe white Gedney Mustard seed which forms part of the Colman's Mustard recipe

The remarkable rescue act was recalled as parent company Unilever celebrated 200 years of Colman’s mustard this year – revealing just how close it came to losing its homegrown supply of white mustard seeds.

White mustard seed, which is predominantly grown in East Anglia, forms a vital part of the Colmans recipe, but back in 2007 poor harvests, combined with a reliance on larger seed types, was having a devastating effect on yields. It prompted three of the 14 growers to turn their back on it.

Such was the scale of concern that Unilever turned to help from scientists at the John Innes Centre and experts at Elsoms Seeds in Spalding, Lincolnshire, to identify what was causing the dramatic fall in yields.

Now seven years later an English Mustard Growers co-operative formed in the wake of the crisis has seen membership increase as more farmers return to growing mustard – helping produce 60pc of the seed needed by Colman’s.

Peter Isaac, scientific director at IDNA, the molecular geneticist called in to diagnose the problem, said DNA profiling helped pinpoint the problem. “It wasn’t just the yield that was the problem, but the flavour had actually changed in a couple of their mustards,” he said.

“We said we could have a look at it and asked if what they were growing was the same as the population of mustards they were growing a couple of years ago. They went to their seed store and had stocks from quite a while ago. We did some DNA fingerprinting and compared whether the new was the same as the old. The problem with a plant like mustard is as soon as it starts getting narrow you get an inbreeding effect.”

David Pendlington, operations director for sustainable sourcing at Unilever, said: “There are five different types of mustard. What we hadn’t realised was there are different types within the whole which actually makes the white variety. In 2007 we got to the point where it really wasn’t viable for the mustard growers growing it to continue. We worked with John Innes to understand what was going on with the viability.

“We compared some varieties with 1995/96 and found we had been sieving the good bits out of the variety out and we had to rebuild our stocks, so we went to Elsoms to breed a new variety. We were able to rejuvenate the seed (Gedney) because Colmans had jars of dried mustard going back decades. What it showed is that if we didn’t keep the viability of the seed stock maintained you lose yield.”

Do you have a business story? Email shaun.lowthorpe@archant.co.uk

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