Barley is the fourth most important cereal crop in the world, grown in more than 100 countries and used for animal feed, human food and the production of alcohol. Overall global production varies around 150 million tonnes, but the demand for high quality malting barley is expected to increase to meet increasing demand from developing economies, notably China. Within the UK, production has declined from a peak of just under 11 million tonnes in 1984 to just over 5.5 million tonnes in 2005. The UK is a major producer of barley and its malting barley has an international reputation for quality and a ready market in local distillers and brewers. Despite this, malting barley purchases have been in decline from a peak of 2.0 million tonnes from harvest 2003 to 1.7 million tonnes from harvest 2006, largely due to a relatively high cost of production compared to established (Australia, Canada) and emerging (Ukraine, Russia) competitors.
Barley breeding in the UK is conducted by private companies with five conducting UK based breeding programmes. These are: KWS (UK), RAGT Seeds, Limagrain UK, Secobra and Syngenta. Lines from European based barley breeding programmes, again in the private sector, are also evaluated in the UK, either by agency agreements with one of the above companies or with other companies. The costs of running a breeding programme are in the order of £250k per annum, to which must be added costs for variety registration and protection, stock and seed production and marketing, which can add another £200k to the budget. Royalties on each tonne of certified seed sold of a breeder’s variety are the main source of income derived from these activities. Over the past 13 years, barley certified seed production has halved from a peak of just under 200k tonnes in 1996 to under 100k tonnes in 2006, which represents a significant decrease in the amount of money that companies can invest in barley breeding.
The rapid advances in genomics are leading to an unprecedented ability to identify causal genes for economically important characters, notably yield and malting quality, thus facilitating the selection of pools of enriched germplasm in the laboratory and, as a result, improving the effectiveness of field trialling conducted in conventional breeding programmes. Whilst the costs of developing the resources to conduct such programmes have reduced, they are still too resource intensive to be conducted by any one breeding company. On the other hand, the public sector has the necessary skills to develop the resources, especially when integrated across different organisations, but, due to its science focus, lacks the necessary emphasis on technology delivery and often the industrial links to effectively deploy its knowledge.
The possible advances from research also lead to a need to educate two distinct groups about the implications that these might bring. Firstly, the UK barley breeding community is largely an ageing community with a lack of suitable expertise available for succession management, let alone being able to integrate conventional breeding with DNA finger-printing methodology. Secondly, the end-user community needs to be made aware that, in the future, new barley varieties can be developed to meet their particular needs. This applies not only to existing markets but, more importantly, could also open up new market opportunities.