Defra minister hails Norwich Research Park's key role in plant genetics

Defra minister George Eustice having a tour of some of the projects at the John Innes Centre after speaking at the Genetic Improvement Network conference. George Eustice with JIC scientist Carol Moreau looking at peas.

Defra minister George Eustice having a tour of some of the projects at the John Innes Centre after speaking at the Genetic Improvement Network conference. George Eustice with JIC scientist Carol Moreau looking at peas.

John Innes Centre

A government minister visited the Norwich Research Park to champion the work of genetic improvement networks (GINs) in seeking scientific solutions to agriculture's modern challenges.

Farming minister George Eustice was the keynote speaker at a seminar at the John Innes Centre which explored the work of the Defra-supported networks, which have been running for 10 years.

Groups specialising in important crop sectors – including oilseed rape, vegetables, pulses and wheat – are working to identify emerging challenges and find ways for them to be overcome by researchers, breeders and, ultimately, farmers.

As well as bridging the communication gaps between the academic and commercial spheres, the GINs also give access to libraries of seeds and tissue, mapped using genetic markers to identify potentially useful commercial traits relating to nutrition, yield or disease resistance.

Mr Eustice said: “Genetic improvement is going to be absolutely crucial in meeting some of the challenges we face in the future, in terms of our competitiveness and reducing our dependance on pesticides.

“That’s why we are very proud of the great work that the GINs have done. It is our longest-standing agri-food collaboration project, and there are some fantastic examples of what we can achieve by bringing together researchers and breeders and industry to identify and tackle some of the challenges that we face.”

Mr Eustice said successes included the Pulse Crop GIN’s identification of a wild pea relative with properties which could improve nutrition and protein absorption in animal feed, offering the prospect of an alternative to soybeans, while the Vegetable GIN has started to identify resistance to the turnip yellows virus, which can cause yield losses of up to 30pc in oilseed rape.

The minister said he believe genetic improvement techniques should be regulated differently to genetically-modified (GM) crops.

“The GM debate has become mired in politics and there is currently something of a deadlock politically in the EU but I think there is a real opportunity with these new breeding techniques,” he said.

“My view is that these new types of breeding techniques are not actually that far removed from traditional techniques and we need to make sure we have got a regulatory approach that is fit for purpose. The EU is currently considering whether these new breeding techniques should be caught by the GM regulations, or whether they should be treated differently.”

Heloise Tierney, head of the EU crops regime team at Defra said the GINs would occupy a pivotal role in delivering the government’s 25 year food and farming plan, bridging the link between “blue sky” fundamental science, and viable commercial projects.

The meeting was chaired by BBC Countryfile presenter Tom Heap, who said: “Genetic improvement is not just about quantity, it is about quality of food and the environmental sustainability factor. If we can get the message across that this is about health of people’s food and the environment then it could overcome some of their suspicions.”

Robert Sheasby, regional director of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), questioned why there were not more farmers on the partnership boards. “There is clearly a lot of technical work involved but what I would like to see is a better connect which is getting it into practical field work,” he said. “The feeling I am getting is that farmers are under-represented.”

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PANEL: Pulsing ahead

A business making white pea flour as a nutrient-rich alternative for the gluten-free market is one commercial enterprise which has benefited from the expertise of genetic improvement networks (GINs).

PeaWise, which supplies gluten-free flour made from UK-grown white peas, was assisted by the Pulse Crop GIN (PCGIN), led by project co-ordinator Dr Claire Domoney of the John Innes Centre.

Dr Domoney said: “There is a huge diversity in peas. People think of the frozen things you buy in supermarkets, but you get round and wrinkled varieties, green and yellow, sweet and not-sweet. Patrick is looking at maximising the potential of this diversity, so we are looking at how we can sample for the diversity available in nutrition, taste and flavour, and basic things to do with seed quality. We know there are attributes that can be mapped onto the proteins in the seeds.

“GINs are open networks and the way they were set up by Defra meant they were totally dependent on having a stakeholder forum attached to them, so it is not just ‘blue sky’ academic research – it needs to find a demonstrable purpose.”

Patrick Mitton, managing director of PeaWise, told the conference he was targeting the gluten-free market worth £250m in 2015 and growing at 15pc per year.

“The input of Claire and the team has been enormously useful in our protocol year,” he said. “If we think about this genetic work I look to the possible nutritional aspects that can form the basis of the crop going forward.”

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