NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle

Who would try to predict wheat yields?

Posted on 05/01/2018 by Jim Orson

Christmas is over and the days are slowly getting longer. This year I have decided to try to sow earlier some of my vegetable and flower seeds indoors, provided that I can get some supplementary lighting to stop them becoming ‘leggy’. This has meant doing a bit of research on LED plant growth lights. In the past they have promised great savings in energy costs but their prices has been prohibitive. It now appears that I can buy one for under a tenner.

The problem is that the choice is huge with differences in the balance of the blue and red light emitted. As a rule of thumb, the red part of the light spectrum is good for encouraging growth and flowering and the blue part is good for producing sturdy plants. Interestingly some emit a balance of light that is claimed to be equivalent to sunlight received at 10.00 a.m. (I assume GMT). This claim interested me because a couple of years ago I said in a blog on the reasons for high yields in 2015 that research suggests that morning sunshine is used more efficiently by wheat than sunlight later in the day. I have been digging around in the literature but have been unable to find any research findings on the implications on wheat of the spectrum of the light produced by morning sunlight.

Whilst searching the scientific literature, I discovered that the photosynthetic efficiency of wheat is influenced by the co‚Äźordination between supply (photosynthesis) and demand (sink size; during grain fill this is mainly the number of grains and their rate of growth). In general, photosynthetic rate declines when sinks are reduced but increases when sinks are increased (i.e. demand increases) (full details). Hence, high yielding crops use solar radiation more efficiently and this contributes to a more efficient use of nitrogen. In addition, the efficiency of use of solar radiation also partly depends on its daily distribution. It is better to have six hours sunshine every day rather than 12 hours sunshine every other day (full details).

Such variations in the exploitation of solar radiation by wheat help to explain why predicting yield is a fool’s exercise. Throw in the fact that other factors, such as soil moisture supply, can significantly influence yields only compounds the madness. Simple and fixed conversion rates of solar radiation to crop growth and yield can lead to significant errors in prediction. For example, using these simple and fixed conversion rates suggests that the South West should have the highest wheat yields but in fact Defra Statistics show that it is one of the lowest yielding areas in the UK.

Jim orson blog 211

Returning to my madness…. I have been attempting to predict yields in a July blog for the past few years. How did I get on this year? I concluded in a mid-July blog (uploaded on 14 July 2017) that ‘I think that in many parts of the country the wheat yields will do well to be above average. Second wheats seem to have particularly suffered from the lack of rainfall. However, yields in Lincolnshire and further North may be more pleasing’. Hence you can imagine my surprise when in early October Defra estimated that the UK yield was well above average at 8.5 tonnes/hectare. However, its final estimate published on 21 December is 8.3 tonnes/ha both for England and the UK. This is just above the 2013-2017 average of 8.2 tonnes/ha but well above the 2012-2017 average of 8.0 tonnes/ha. As you know 2012 was a low yielding year and including it lowers the average. This demonstrates how news stories can be manipulated by the choice of the comparators.

Therefore, I slightly under-estimated the yields in areas where there was a significant early spring drought. Dry springs are generally good for yields, partly because they are typically associated with above average solar radiation. This year the drought was severe enough and long enough for me to be concerned about its negative effects on average yields. However, wheat yields did suffer on light soils in some areas. My other concern was the warm spring and early summer that accelerated growth and development. This meant that there were fewer days than average for the crop to intercept solar radiation but I hoped that the above average levels of solar radiation during this time period would largely balance this out. It seems it did. Finally, there was concern about the blistering temperatures over a couple of days in late June but it seems that this was sufficiently far enough after flowering to have little effect.

In terms of regions, perhaps I was correct in predicting well above average yields for the North East and Yorkshire and The Humber.

One final observation. The graph below from Defra statistics indicates that after a 20-year plateau the five year moving average wheat yield is now rising. However, a repeat in 2018 of the conditions endured in 2012 may wreck this optimism. Let us hope for a good 2018 harvest.

Jim orson blog 211

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Changing behaviour of black-grass

Posted on 15/12/2017 by Jim Orson

I have regularly been asked whether black-grass has changed its field characteristics over the last 30-40 years. I have always given the same answer, an authorative “I dunno”. However, some recently published papers have suggested that the development of herbicide resistance may have had an impact on, for example, seedling emergence.

Resistance occurs by herbicides selecting plants with a mutant gene or genes that enable it to survive their application. Put simply, the predominant members of a population die as a result of herbicide application but a few individuals that have the mutant gene(s) will survive. Experience suggests that in black-grass such plants initially represented an incredibly small proportion of the population, perhaps one in 10-20 million.

Classically, resistant plants are less “fit” to survive, unless the herbicides to which they are resistant are used. This “fitness cost” may express itself in many ways, such as the ability to germinate and/or emerge or the size of the mature plant. This is perfectly logical because these resistant plants would not represent merely a tiny minority of the original population if they were as “fit” as the herbicide susceptible plants. Their only “fitness” benefit is likely to be the ability to survive the application of one or more herbicides.

A recent paper in Weed Science written by researchers in Denmark shows that the seeds from the non-target site resistant plants in a subpopulation of black-grass are less likely to emerge than those from the susceptible plants. The cooler the conditions and the deeper the depth of burial, the greater the reduction in emergence. This is a classical fitness penalty; the more hostile the conditions the greater the impact on some aspects of the life cycle of the plant.

Hence, this research indicates that the later the drilling in the autumn and the deeper the cultivations may have an increasingly negative impact on the emergence of seeds shed from the resistant plants when compared to seeds from the susceptible plants in the same population. This in turn may mean that such cultural control measures will now be more effective in reducing populations rather than when the original trials were done 30-40 years ago. It also suggests that early drilling and shallow tillage is likely to increase the proportion of non-target site resistant individuals in a population; this is provided that there are still viable seeds from susceptible plants remaining in the soil!

A few caveats before I get carried away. The subpopulation in this research was grown from seed harvested in one field. As we know, non-target site resistance is a variable feast and so these results may not represent all sites where this form of resistance occurs. On the other hand, there is typically a fitness cost to resistance. However, this is not always clear. A few years ago the implications of two mutations that confer target site resistance to the ‘fops’ and ‘dims’ in black-grass were studied. One mutation conferred increased dormancy, seedling vigour and seedling tolerance to environmental stresses whilst the impact of the other mutation was largely the opposite.

It is not all good news on the fitness costs of resistance. The same Danish group (Frontiers in Plant Science, November 2017) found that within the same subpopulation, the non-target site resistant plants had the same sized mature plants, the same number of tillers/plant and the same number of seed shed/plant as the susceptible plants. This suggests that if only herbicides to which there was no resistance were used, it would take decades or longer before susceptible plants would eventually become very dominant members of this subpopulation. So, do not hold your breath!

It seems that there must have been changes in the black-grass life cycle over the last 30-40 years due, if nothing else, to the development of resistance. The problem is that non-target resistance can involve a few mutated genes and target site resistance more than one mutated genes. Perhaps a simple pot experiment will indicate the likely extent of the changes. It is complicated but I can now say “I dunno” with even more authority.

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Sustaining conflicting ideas

Posted on 01/12/2017 by Jim Orson

Whenever I walk to Cambridge Railway Station I pass new buildings that are divided into ‘sustainable’ student flats. Each time I see that slogan I think “what makes them sustainable?”. They look like all other new build flats, which are no doubt well insulated. I also suppose they may have a few solar panels on their flat roofs. But sustainable no!

Sustainable is the in-word when discussing agricultural systems. It has been a ‘must’ for research applications for the last 25 years or so. However, it remains undefined and somewhat of a mystery to many. A bit like the student flats.

I recently attended a discussion on sustainable agricultural production at the Cambridge Department of Plant Sciences. For one speaker the answer was easy – ban cattle and sheep. She said that dairy cattle alone are responsible for 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas production. There is no doubt that agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas production; I have not been able to verify that particular figure but it could be in the right ball-park.

Getting rid of cattle and sheep will also reduce the need for growing arable crops to feed them, further reducing the footprint of agriculture. I did ask the question what would happen to the upland farms if sheep production were banned. They not only provide an income and an infrastructure but also many tourists appreciate the landscape of fields being grazed by sheep. She was unrepentant and added that farming the uplands is responsible for flooding in many parts of the country.

Defra secretary Michael Gove is now talking about the loss of agricultural soils. He made the claim that Britain has lost 84% of fertile topsoil since 1850 and erosion continues in some areas at between 1cm and 3cm a year. I have been working in agriculture all my life and I do not recognise those figures. Hence, I read what I am pretty sure is the source document. It seems that the quoted losses are just for the peat fens and not all agricultural soils. Again, all agricultural production is implicated from a quote out of context. I am not sure if Michael Gove would recognise a fen peat if it hit him in the face but his advisers should know better. It should also be noted that in the 1960s and 1970s there was active state-funded research trying to find approaches to minimise carbon losses from the fen peats but, according to my knowledge, no research has since been done. There is one positive measure that could be adopted to prevent the loss of food production from organic peat soils and that is to prevent the construction of even more solar farms on this valuable resource.

Farmers do recognise there is a soil health issue and have moved much more positively than any policy maker. They are anxious to improve soil conditions and many use as much organic material as they can get. However, according to a House of Lords committee, there are apparently still some potential organic sources not being used. The recent widespread adoption of cover crops on the lighter and medium soils must be reducing soil erosion although their longer term benefits remain a subject of debate.

Large increases in soil organic matter remain an impossible task however desirable the objective. The necessary large scale use of organic manures is not possible because of limited supplies. The only other option is to sow long-term grass leys. Defra became keen on this idea a few years ago but then looked at the experimental data. For instance, in the often quoted ley fertility experiments carried out on the MAFF Experimental Husbandry Farms in the 1950s and 1960s, the lift in organic matter from a 9 year grass ley was almost completely lost in the following three years of arable cropping.

So the path to ‘sustainability’ is strewn with conflicts. Should we convert three quarters of our arable land to leys for a temporary small increase in soil organic matter? Should an increased population of cattle and sheep be allowed to graze on these leys because of the inevitable rise in greenhouse gas production? Will the banning of sheep and cattle result in a significant decrease in the availability of organic manures to improve arable land? Would it be asking too much to ask for some clear holistic thinking on the issue of sustainability based on what is possible through best practice rather than listening to, often unrealistic, solutions to individual issues?

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Turning the tide

Posted on 17/11/2017 by Jim Orson

My wife and I recently attended the screening of the film “Food Evolution”, which was funded by the Institute of Food Technologists. It graphically details the objections to GM food and also the people who are promulgating the scares. One amazing scare story that I have not heard before is that GM food affects your immune system which protects you from infections such as HIV?!

Mark Twain’s famous quote “It is easier to fool people than convince them that they have been fooled” is the first image of the film and sets the scene. It is illuminating how the scare stories are debunked in the film and also to hear that some leading objectors to GM foods in the US have shops on their websites selling ‘healthy’ foods.

One negative story about GM, which Prince Charles frequently quotes, is that buying GM seed has increased farmer debt in India and resulted in suicides. Each suicide is a huge tragedy but the suicide rate amongst Indian farmers did not increase after the introduction of GM crops in India. Sadly, it has long been at current levels.

Some objectors used to quote that there is a very close correlation between the increase in glyphosate use on GM maize and soya in the US and the increase in the number of autism cases in the US. Please, always remember that correlation is not causation and in fact there is a similarly strong correlation between the organic food sales in the US and autism (full details). Despite this close correlation I have never heard anyone suggest that organic food causes autism!

                     Number of children 6-12 with autism

                              The real cause of increasing autism prevalence?

Going back to Mark Twain, the scare stories have convinced many that GM food production and consumption is damaging both to the environment and their health. Getting them to accept that they have been severely misled is a major challenge. As one journalist asks in the film “when was the last time you changed your mind on a major issue?”. This simple question encapsulates the enormity of the task of convincing consumers that GM is safe.

In the panel discussion after the film it was agreed that the way forward is to quote the examples of successful niche uses that have been introduced by non-commercially funded researchers, rather than corporations, into a society that has a background of unease over GM technology. One of the prime examples used in the film is GM rainbow papaya that saved production in Hawaii from a virus and another concerned bananas threatened by a wilt disease in Uganda. These two cases have gained acceptance by the legislators and consumers and could open the gates to other uses of the technology.

The film was screened at a meeting of the University of Cambridge’s Global Food Security Initiative. I estimated that there were around 150 people present and if there was anyone present who objected to GM technology, they kept very quiet. This I think is illuminating in itself. Over the last ten years or so academia has not only become more accepting of GM technology and other modern biotech breeding methods but also of ‘intensive farming’. Most now agree that organic farming would use up too much land in order to feed people and hence would be environmentally disastrous. I hope that the media will eventually see this issue more objectively. At the moment they appear to accept lamely that all the world’s ills are due to ‘intensive farming’.

However, having said that, a paper in this week’s Nature Communications suggests that organic production could feed the world in the future but would require 16 - 33% more land or that the current cropped area would be sufficient if food waste is reduced by 50%. Also land that can grow arable crops should not grow crops for animal feed. This is a repeat of a story that is at least twenty years old and it still sounds far too good to be true. Mind you, even if these suppositions are correct, just think of the land potentially spared from conventional crop production if demand is similarly reduced by cutting waste and by not growing arable crops for animal feed. This spared land could be specifically managed to meet environmental objectives. It would be a veritable seventh heaven for many conservation organisations.

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WHO and ebola, Mugabe and glyphosate

Posted on 03/11/2017 by Jim Orson

My first doubts about the World Health Organization (WHO) arose because of its response, or lack of it, to the ebola crisis in Africa. It was founded to react rapidly to this type of issue but it initially failed when this true emergency came along. It was charities such as Save the Children that first stepped into the breach. The failings of the WHO have been attributed, in part, to the fragmented nature of its structure.

The WHO did not seem to learn from the ebola issue. Its organisational structure has allowed the now discredited scientist Christopher Portier the space to play out his own financially rewarding personal vendetta against glyphosate and also enabled Robert Mugabe to be – temporarily! - appointed a goodwill ambassador. I am not sure which is the sillier decision. Obviously there are no checks and balances to prevent individuals and cliques from following their own agendas rather than that of the organisation.

It is now clear that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the WHO, describing glyphosate as a probable carcinogen is a scandal. I hope that when the WHO is re-organised, as it must be, it will review this decision and use independent minded scientists. In the meantime it is necessary to defend the herbicide.

There is more than sufficient good science to defend the safety of glyphosate in an independent forum. The impact of its withdrawal on arable agriculture and the wider environment would be immense. Whilst the list of its benefits is too long to detail in this blog, I should like to mention one issue in particular.

It is a widely held belief that no-till, enabled by glyphosate, increases carbon capture in the soil. This is not true. No-till and ploughing capture the same amount of carbon. With no-till there is a build up on the soil surface whilst with ploughing it is distributed throughout the plough layer. A recent AHDB report confirms this.

It may well be that concentrating the soil carbon close to the surface rather than it being more dispersed brings agronomic and environmental advantages. Of course, no-till or shallow till means moving less soil and so there can be massive savings in fuel usage and carbon emissions. As a rule of thumb, doubling the depth of moving all the soil in the primary cultivation increases the power requirement fourfold.

Soil health is now of tremendous interest to politicians as well as farmers and, in this context, reducing tillage is a way forward provided that the soil is suited to such an approach and rotations are adopted to help manage weeds. The potential cost savings are very significant. The use of cover crops can help facilitate no-till or min-till but they will need to be killed with glyphosate before the following crop.

With such major advantages from glyphosate use hopefully the regulatory authorities will not let slip their standards and attitudes to sound science.

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