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Give us bread!

The privatisation of Britain’s wheat-breeding programme under Thatcher means we now trail other countries’ productivity when we used to be world-leading, write ROX MIDDLETON, LIAM SHAW and JOEL HELLEWELL

IN BRITAIN, there is no better way to understand the place of scientific endeavour in food production than by looking at the breeding of wheat. 

Wheat is grown on more of the world’s surface than any other crop, due to its versatility. 

Given the high density of wheat growing in Britain, we may not be surprised at a former Tory prime minister’s famously destructive childhood pastime. 

Wheat is the largest arable crop in the UK by area. It is grown throughout the country, although most intensively in the east of England, particularly East Anglia. 

The wheat grown in Britain is in mostly “winter wheat,” sown before winter hits and harvested nearly a year later in the late summer or early autumn. 

This long growing time means that only one crop a year can be harvested, an apparent inefficiency which is more than compensated for by the very high yield. Crops of winter wheat are also higher in gluten content and suitable for making bread. 

The UK produces 80-85 per cent of its own wheat, an unusually high proportion compared to the 60 per cent of food overall that is produced in the UK rather than imported. 

The promotion of British wheat production is largely due to the concerted efforts of the government’s wheat-breeding programme through the 20th century. 

This programme focused on research into wheat improvement, from speculative research all the way to commercial seed production. 

The programme was managed by the national Plant Breeding Institute (PBI), which was sold off in 1987 under Margaret Thatcher, breaking up the wheat-breeding programme into several smaller private breeding companies, and selling the PBI itself to Unilever. 

The privatisation of a 75-year-old highly successful state research agency is a crystal-clear example of the privatisation ideology. 

The PBI made enough money from wheat royalties to be self-supporting, paying not only for all its breeding and pre-breeding (early-stage) research, but also generating a surplus income of 23 per cent. 

At the time it was sold off, British wheat breeding was highly recognised internationally for its success. 

The subsequent problems for British wheat breeding show the destruction this privatisation caused. 

Since the wheat-breeding programme had been essentially funded by its own royalties, the government barely reduced its costs at all by the sell-off; even the claim that the privatisation would contribute to reducing taxes wasn’t true. 

The result was that the cost of research was now borne largely by farmers, who in turn passed it to consumers to pay in increased food costs. 

The only winners were the multinationals such as Unilever profiteering from our need for bread. 

The crucial problem came in the fragmentation of different parts of the research programme, which isolated breeders, researchers and farmers. 

A report on the effects of privatisation refers to a “lost 15 years” of productivity, as British wheat breeding struggled to return to where it had been. 

A return to earlier productivity has been achieved through working to reconnect the arbitrarily fragmented stakeholders in wheat improvement. 

However, Britain still trails other national wheat programmes when it used to be world leading. 

The fostering of collaboration and dialogue remains imperfect and requires huge amount of effort and resources. 

In fact, the government has been forced to spend large amounts of cash on supporting these collaborations, on top of the remaining publicly funded research such as early-stage investigation that is considered too risky to be worth attempting by private firms. 

Wheat production is supremely unsuited to control by the market. It forms a natural monopoly: the first and largest companies dominate. 

Farmers want crops with an increase in yield, but enhancement of crop yield stalled throughout Europe in the 1990s, making each subsequent improvement incremental. 

The problem for companies is that farmers can grow their own seed for each subsequent year, instead of buying new seed when there is no clear benefit. 

In order to stop this, companies make farmers pay around 30 per cent of the cost of the original seed they bought per tonne of seed that they retain for each subsequent season. 

The biggest worry among wheat researchers, whose primary goal is to enhance our ability to feed everyone, is that companies care more about managing this monopoly than research. 

The fundamental research which might produce long-term advances is being neglected or disconnected from implementing in practical growing. One of these areas is the wheat genome. 

The wheat genome is enormous. It contains five times as much genetic information as that of humans, much of it highly repetitive, making it harder to analyse. 

The human genome was first sequenced in 2003; the wheat genome was only published in full in 2018. Reading and understanding the entire wheat genome was a massive scientific endeavour taken on 14 years ago when the technology for genetic sequencing was still in development. 

The project was immense and the publication of the whole genome last year was authored by 200 scientists from 73 different countries. 

Their hope is that understanding the genome will allow us to select future plants with enhanced properties. 

Wheat’s 11,000-year history of cultivation has taken it far from the original ancestors of modern wheat. 

These ancestors have large reservoirs of potentially compatible DNA which are not present in modern crops, but which might hold the key to improved durability, nutritional content and yield. 

These enhancements will be increasingly needed as the effects of climate change continue and worsen. 

Wheat breeding remains similar to its agricultural origins. Likely plants are crossed with each other to produce new seeds which are grown and in turn selected for beneficial characteristics. 

Understanding the genome means that this expensive and slow process can be sped up by checking the DNA for potentially beneficial characteristics without having to grow it. 

The potential for further transforming breeding by the introduction of gene-editing techniques might further help to transform the way we choose and grow crops. 

For now, a practical improvement in our ability to grow food might be made by merely reinvesting in a nationalised wheat-breeding programme. 

Such a programme would allow research at every stage to be joined up to produce potentially radical enhancements which make it all the way to farmers, rather than trusting in companies to deliver them against their current business models. 

Global food production matters. In 2007-8, dramatic fluctuations in food prices caused protests and riots in many parts of Asia and Africa: the price of wheat more than doubled within a year. 

The causes included droughts and rising oil prices — both of which will get worse in the years to come. As we face the demands of an increasing global population, we already have the resources and technology to meet our needs now and research for an uncertain future. 

Changing this is a political question. Hoping that business interests will save us is not enough. 

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