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The overall goal of this proposal is to employ state-of-the-art genomic tools for oat genetic improvement building on the Defra and RERAD SAL LINK sponsored OatLINK project which provided a pipeline for the transfer of improved genetic material into the oat supply and value chain for the benefit of producers and consumers.  Harnessing the unique properties of oats both as a plant and a grain we can address some of the emerging problems with cereal cultivation and at the same time deliver an environmentally benign crop which offers considerable health benefits for human and livestock consumption.

Further research on oats is required for several reasons. Increasing global demand for cereals coupled with the increased cost of energy and fertiliser is impacting directly upon the profitability and competitiveness of UK cereal growing.  Responding to these challenges, there has been a trend towards continuous wheat rotations which increases soil borne diseases and weed problems impacting on profitability.  Producers are endeavouring to optimise their overall farm returns which has led many to grow crops on less fertile soils or in more marginal situations.  At the same time the increased cost of fertiliser N and environmental concerns emphasises the need for crops that use N more efficiently (HGCA Research review No. 63) so reducing the main environmental burden in arable crop production (Nemecek, 2004).  For the livestock sector the high cost of imported concentrates has increased the opportunity for a high quality feed that can be grown and fed “on-farm” in an environmentally sustainable manner.  The high Actual Metabolisable Energy (AME) in oat grains and the lower fertiliser and pesticide input when growing the crop means that oats have a lower environmental footprint per AME delivered.

Oats are a valuable break crop in cereal rotations reducing disease and weed problems, a lower input crop than wheat, perform well in marginal areas and are a high value feed that grows well in grassland based rotations. Nevertheless there is a need to improve key traits that will increase the production and utilisation of oats whilst also mitigating climate and environmental change via reduced agricultural inputs. Research also needs to anticipate changes in the market as consumers shift towards healthier diets of which oats are a key component. Discussions with end-user groups from the milling and livestock sectors as well as processors have identified the priority areas that will be the scientific focus of this proposal and where genetic improvement can make quantifiable improvements. As the recent Chatham House report states ‘Work must start now to create a UK food supply that meets new standards of resilience, sustainability and competitiveness based on stakeholder partnerships’ (Ambler-Edwards et al, 2009). This project fits those criteria ideally.

An important target for OatLINK was to integrate molecular marker technology with conventional selection and trait analysis and to demonstrate the value of molecular based approaches by applying markers to specific traits. This has been achieved successfully. However, as various approaches to marker discovery have been tested and high density oat maps established, it has become clear that there is relatively little polymorphism in cultivated oats. There is therefore a pressing need to understand underlying genetic processes in order to maximise use of available polymorphism and also to be able to select precisely for novel polymorphisms from non-UK adapted germplasm if it is to be used effectively by plant breeders.

This project will integrate conventional and molecular methods of selection with high throughput analysis of grain composition in relation to the development of oats for  human and livestock production and industrial uses.

Aim of the project

  • This proposal seeks to develop oats with the agronomic qualities, yield, economic competitiveness and quality traits that meet the need of growers and industrial end-users. It will develop powerful enabling technologies for the identification of specific genes and molecular markers associated with key traits. In collaboration with academic partners and industrial end-users across the whole production chain, we will use the breeder –friendly tools to incorporate traits that will enhance the value of oats as a low input cereal, increase the environmental and economic sustainability of cereal based rotations, realise the potential of oats as a high value animal feed and develop new opportunities for using oats through advanced fractionation techniques.

Opportunities addressed or provided by the project

  • The LINK project will capitalise on the value of oats as a profitable component of sustainable arable production for human and livestock consumption and for industrial end uses. It will build on and exploit the successful OatLINK project which has demonstrated the added value that can be achieved from bringing together in one project the different components of the oat production chain and the various end-users of oats and oat products.

Benefits to industry, science and the environment

  • The arable industry will benefit through the development of new oat varieties and the enhancement of oats as a valuable and profitable break crop with proven health benefits. Oat varieties with lower levels of mycotoxins will minimise waste due to loss of crop and reduce the need for application of pesticides. A feed oat with high oil and low lignin husk will remove some of the barriers to uptake of current naked (huskless) oats. Development of premium oat feed and the potential of high oil oats for advanced fractionation will provide further sustainable opportunities for the arable sector to exploit this low input crop.

  • The milling industry will benefit by ensuring the commercial sustainability of the UK oat crop and from varieties that will be within proposed EU mycotoxin levels and from its waste product (hulls) being used for production of important platform chemicals. Understanding the genetic basis of β-glucan content will enable the precision breeding of tailor-made varieties for the healthy foodmarket.

  • The oat product industry will benefit from the ensured continued sustainability of the UK oat crop and the access to raw material with a broader spectrum of qualities (oil & β-glucan content and composition etc) that will allow them to reduce waste in their process and diversify and expand products bases by using more appropriate oat varieties.

  • The dairy and beef industry will benefit through being recognised by government and the public as causing less pollution. The development of high oil/low lignin oats will also provide feed compounders and farmers with a valuable ingredient that will be higher in energy than wheat and would, regardless of methane production, be used in least cost formulated diets.

  • The poultry industry will benefit through reduced environmental impact of production and enable the industries to better meet the requirements of IPPC. High oil oat with low lignin husk would have several benefits for the poultry feed industry a) provide a source of high ME, b) remove some of the barriers to usage of naked oats.