NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

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NIAB History

NIAB ArmsThe National Institute of Agricultural Botany was founded in 1919, following requests from farmers and seedsmen, through the initiative of Sir Lawrence Weaver, the Commercial Secretary of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries.

The objects of the Institute were described in a declaration of Trust. Crucially, they are as relevant today as they were 90 years ago as we strive to meet the considerable challenges ahead. They include:-

  • Promoting the improvement of existing varieties of seeds, plants and crops in the United Kingdom and aiding the introduction or distribution of new varieties;
  • Promoting the improvement of methods of husbandry for the benefit of agriculture or horticulture or any of the allied or accessory trades or industries as regards matters mentioned in paragraph (1) or any matters ancillary thereto;
  • Encouraging the discovery of, investigating, and making known the nature and merits of methods of treatment, inventions, improvements, processes and designs which may seem of benefit to the seed industry or any of the allied or accessory trades or industries.


Harvest weightThe Trust Deed provided for the Institute to be administered and managed by a Council and gave them wide powers to achieve those objectives. From its foundation the Institute has sought to attain its object of improving crop varieties in the United Kingdom by investigating the relative merits of different varieties available and by publishing the results in its journal.

An important element to the historical account of the Institute is its relationship with another of Weaver’s interests; the welfare of ex-servicemen. A great number of the staff employed by the Institute at the time of its inception where officers and men whom had recently returned from active service. The building of the Institute was closely associated with provision of houses for the Housing Association for Officers Families (HAFOF).

In 1917, the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries had established the Official Seed Testing Station (OSTS) for England and Wales under the Seeds Act, and in 1921 it became one of the branches of the Institute at its newly built headquarters in Cambridge. Its aim was (and still is) to improve and monitor the quality of agricultural seeds by testing samples and issuing reports thereon. The information reported by the station is used by seed sellers, purchasers and by farmers growing their own seed.

Potato demoThe Institute established its Potato Testing Station in 1920, at Ormskirk. The work of that branch was primarily to carry out annual trials of new potato varieties for immunity from wart disease on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture. Other chief areas of work were variety yield trials, “seed” potato husbandry, the eradication of synonymous varieties and virus research. The Potato Testing Station was closed in 1939 with Wart Disease testing moved to Harpenden and yield trials dispersed to the NIAB regional centers.

The Fourth International Seed Testing Congress was held at the Institute in July 1924 and the International Seed Testing Association was formed during that meeting. The OSTS was thus a founder member of ISTA. Testing of seed samples at the OSTS, pursuant to the issue of I.S.T.A. certificates, remains a key role of NIAB to this day.

In 1942, at the request of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Council of the Institute set up the Seed Production Branch to encourage the production of better seed crops in England and Wales and to act as a focal point in all matters relating to the home production of seeds. General field trials had been temporarily suspended earlier in that same war-time period.

The Council felt that the Institute could best serve the nation’s interests by concentrating on seed production, thus helping to secure the food supply at that time of blockade. The department has since then overseen national strategies for seed certification; from the initial voluntary schemes through to the mandatory European Community directive driven official crop inspections and varietal purity control plots which are administered on behalf of Defra. It has a long-standing responsibility for the training and examination of Licensed Crop Inspectors.

GerminationComparative trialing of new varieties of agricultural crops has always been, and remains, one of the core mechanisms by which NIAB delivers its objects. Evaluation of performance traits such as yield, resistance to disease etc. against the best of those currently widely available was the principle applied in the formative years. The NIAB would then multiply seed quantities of varieties approved for general release.

A detailed account of the Institute’s history is given in the book “Crop and Seed Improvement”. The authors, both of whom spent their careers at the NIAB, present a full record of the work undertaken up to 1996. Details are available from the Institute’s Association Office. The full reference is: Crop and Seed Improvement - A history of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany 1919 to 1996, By Dr P S Wellington and Valerie Silvey. ISBN 0-948851-11-2.

The Institute holds a large collection of historical documents, photographs and books relating specifically to its work and also to its place within the farming and local communities. These are available for access, with prior arrangement, by interested parties.