Brave new world of sustainable cereals

The brave, new – sustainable – world of cereals

The future focus of European cereal production will be on low input (possibly organic) systems which deploy genetically diverse crops through either varietal mixtures or composite cross populations. These crops will contribute to a multifunctional agriculture.

That is the key conclusion reached by the closing workshop of the
COST860 – SUSVAR network, which has involved four years of input from 150 scientists and cereal sector specialists from across 29 (mostly European) countries.
UK participants include, from England, The Organic Research Centre – Elm Farm and from Scotland both SCRI and SAC.

Other leading elements of their vision for sustainable cereal production for 2020 and beyond include reform of the regulatory and commercial environment for seed production and marketing (Setting Seeds Free); more efficient energy use; a fresh concentration of breeding and agronomic effort on the nutritional quality and nutritional variety of cereals; much greater levels of participatory research alongside farmers and other cereal sector stakeholders.

Project leader and SUSVAR co-ordinator Hanne Østergård of Risø-DTU (The National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy, Technical University of Denmark) says she has been delighted with the convergence of opinion that has been evident over the four years of debate, discussion and argument.

”We started with a wide spectrum of opinion from commercial breeders through university plant and soil scientists, geneticists and pathologists to organic systems specialists with their associated views on everything from intensive, high input agriculture to the fresh use of ancient wheat ancestors such as spelt and einkorn,” says Professor Østergård.

”Partly this convergence of opinion has been driven by the growing realisation that Europe and the wider world must address the threat of food and resource shortages, but mostly it has been driven by robust debate, the sharing between disciplines of scientific knowledge and the power of positive networking.”

As a result, the products of the SUSVAR process include detailed visions on the sustainable cereals of the future with respect to:

• competition between food and bioenergy
• soil management
• economic and legal conditions for variety improvement
• participation of stakeholders
• plant breeding strategies
• food and feed processing improvements
• sustainable land use

Professor Østergård and her SUSVAR colleagues make no claim of delivering magical, instant solutions in the very complex field of sustainable cereal production. But nevertheless she is still optimistic –
”Our time-frame for change may be short, but most of the tools and techniques we need for reform of our cereal growing are available today. We just need to assemble them in novel ways and make sure that regulation, economic and political will are working with sustainable methods, not against them.”

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