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Work underway to improve malting barley quality

Barley field (c) James Hutton Institute
"We now have the knowledge and tools to introduce spring attributes into winter barley in a highly targeted manner to test the hypothesis that this will improve winter malting quality.

Researchers at the James Hutton Institute and leading commercial breeding companies are working to improve the quality of winter barley for malting purposes, in a bid to address the concerns of maltsters, brewers and distillers about the long-term sustainability of the barley crop.

The £2 million, five-year IMPROMALT project, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Scottish Government and HGCA in a LINK project, combines the research expertise of the James Hutton Institute and the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) with the breeding skills and resources of KWS UK, Limagrain, RAGT, Saaten Union, Secobra and Syngenta, as well as the malting and distilling expertise of the Maltsters’ Association of Great Britain (MAGB) and the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI).

The project, managed by Mylnefield Research Services, the commercial arm of the James Hutton Institute, aims to carry out a ‘targeted improvement’ of winter barley in order to incorporate the better malting quality characteristics of the spring crop. If successful, the project could be the single biggest achievement in winter malting barley genetics since the breeding of the Maris Otter variety in the 1960s.

Dr Bill Thomas, principal investigator, said: “Whilst plant breeders have previously tried to add spring quality attributes into winter barley, they have relied on chance events to assemble the right genes, which is like searching for a needle in a haystack when the crops differ at thousands of genetic loci. But we now have the knowledge and tools to introduce spring attributes into winter barley in a highly targeted manner to test the hypothesis that this will improve winter malting quality.

“Distillers can produce 16 more litres of raw spirit per tonne of malt on average from spring barley than they can from winter barley. For an industry that used approximately 600,000t of barley during the 2012 harvest, this is a highly significant difference in production efficiency.”

The supply of malting barley has recently been beset by seasonal problems in many parts of Europe, and within the UK, drought and wet conditions for harvests 2011 and 2012 respectively have resulted in reduced barley crop quality. Predicted climate change scenarios suggest weather fluctuations are likely to become more frequent and will affect the spring crop much more than the winter crop, which can escape the worst effects of summer drought or a late harvest through a much earlier maturity.

Dr James Brosnan, research manager at SWRI and chair of the project steering group, commented: “The increased demand for Scotch whisky means distillers require an easily sourced, sustainable supply of quality malting barley. The greater yield of the winter barley crop could mean that more of the Scottish crop could meet the distilling demand, provided that the quality gap can be bridged. Whilst winter barley might therefore provide a more consistent and larger supply, its use by distillers is minimal due to the reduced quality level of the winter crop relative to modern spring barleys.”

Notes to editors

Mylnefield Research Services (MRS) is a commercial affiliate of the James Hutton Institute. It specialises in crop research, analytical services and plant breeding. From its Dundee base it licenses plant varieties worldwide. Around 50% of blackcurrants and around 15% of the raspberries grown worldwide are varieties bred by MRS at the James Hutton Institute. The company is also a leading breeder of potatoes, with varieties accounting for approximately 5% of the UK seed potato production. MRS started life in 1989 and its ownership transferred to the James Hutton Institute in 2011. The customer base of MRS ranges from local to multinational companies. www.mrsltd.com

The Scotch Whisky Research Institute is the research and technology organisation for the UK distilling industry. Based in Edinburgh, SWRI carries out precompetitive scientific research into all aspects of distilled spirits manufacture for the benefit of the industry as a whole. SWRI works in collaboration with other scientific and industry partners, as illustrated by the IMPROMALT project, to ensure key long term distilling industry priorities, such as a sustainable malting barley supply, can be tackled effectively. www.swri.co.uk

The KWS Group is widely recognised as one of the leading maize, sugar beet and cereal breeders in the world. We operate in around 70 countries, having a global seeds turnover in excess of €750 million and employ nearly 3,500 people worldwide. Based at Thriplow near Cambridge, KWS UK has been providing growers with new and innovative varieties to meet varied end-market needs for over 25 years. Higher yields, reliable quality, superior disease and pest resistance and improved performance in adverse conditions are all key criteria we seek to establish across our product portfolio. www.kws-uk.com

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond. Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £467M (2012-2013), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk, and for more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes.

NIAB is a major international centre for plant science, crop evaluation and agronomy, with headquarters in Cambridge and regional offices across the country. NIAB spans the crop development pipeline, combining within a single resource the specialist knowledge, skills and facilities required to support the improvement of agricultural and horticultural crop varieties, to evaluate their performance and quality, and to ensure these advances are transferred into on-farm practice through efficient agronomy. With an internationally recognised reputation for independence, innovation and integrity, NIAB is ideally placed to meet the industry’s current and future research, information and knowledge transfer needs. www.niab.com

The Maltsters’ Association of Great Britain (MAGB) is the representative body for the UK malting industry. Member companies are proud to buy two million tonnes of British barley annually, and to deliver their malt to brewers, distillers and food manufacturers in Europe and around the world as an important ingredient in the manufacture of high quality food and drink products for consumers to enjoy.

HGCA is a division of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), which is a statutory levy board, funded by farmers, growers and others in the supply chain and managed as an independent organisation (independent of both commercial industry and of Government). Our purpose is to make our agriculture and horticulture industries more competitive and sustainable through factual, evidence-based advice, information and activity. We deliver extensive research and development programmes which are delivering scientifically-robust and commercially useful outcomes for our levy payers. Levy payers are at the heart of what we do. Our delivery of support services to them is focused through six branded operating divisions covering about 75% of total agricultural output in the UK: BPEX, EBLEX, HDC, DairyCo, Potato Council and HGCA.

Limagrain Europe breeds, products and commercializes field seeds to farmers (maize, sunflower, oil seed rape, wheat, barley). Its products are sold in 50 countries through its 19 subsidiaries and many distributors. European leader in wheat and barley, LG brand is also n°1 in forage maize for animal nutrition and main actor in sunflower. Limagrain Europe is a Business Unit of Limagrain, international agricultural co-operative group, specialized in field seeds, vegetable seeds and cereal products. Founded and managed by farmers, Limagrain is the 1st European largest seed company and 4th largest seed company in the world. For further information: www.limagrain-europe.com.

For more information on RAGT, please visit www.ragt.co.uk.

For more information on Syngenta Seeds in the UK, please visit www.syngenta-crop.co.uk.

For more information on Saaten Union in the UK, please visit www.saaten-union.co.uk.

For more information on Secobra, please visit www.secobra.com.

More information from: 

Bernardo Rodriguez-Salcedo, Media Manager, Tel: +44 (0)1224 395089 (direct line), +44 (0)344 928 5428 (switchboard) or +44 (0)7791 193918 (mobile).


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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.