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The UK Grain Lab

Date Published: 03/01/2018

The Grain Lab will be a collaborative initiative between farmers, millers, bakers, brewers, chefs and researchers.

The vision is to work along the supply chain and across food and farming networks to make innovative, diverse, nutritious and avoursome grains available to all.

The Grain Lab is inspired by the pioneering work of the Bread Lab in the US which started within Washington State University and now conducts research on thousands of lines of cereals. Working with farmers they are identifying those that work well for growers and food processors from millers to bakers and maltsters to brewers.

What is the background to plant breeding?

The second half of the 20th Century saw the greatest increases in yi elds in the 10,000 year history of agriculture, with muchof the yield increase due to cultivation methods and plant breeding.

Modern commercial plant breeding is aimed at producing high yielding varieties that will perform well when grown in high input production systems. The focus for cereal plants is therefore on short straw and dense ears.

With high yield as the primary focus next on the list of concern for seed breeders are a plant’s resistance to disease, it’s straw strength and grain weight and grain quality which will be according to suitability for either mainstream baking or for animal feed.

Wheat quality, defined as suitability for roller milling and baking well-risen sandwich loaves, has undergone huge amounts of development over the last few decades. A series of quality varieties including Yeoman, Holdfast, Maris Widgeon, Avalon and Hereward bred at PBI in Cambridge, together with the Chorleywood Bread Process allowed UK grown wheat to replace imported hard red wheats in the nation’s white sliced loaf. Similar advances in yield and quality have been achieved in barley, underpinning a successful UK brewing and distilling industry.


So why is there a need for a Grain Lab?

The commercial plant breeding companies that replaced the public PBI must earn their income by breeding for the largest markets, meaning that niche and speciality uses of grains are often left behind.

There is growing interest from the public in food with provenance, heritage, health and flavour, and a growing number of artisan bakers, microbreweries, distillers and food companies to cater to this demand.

At the same time more farmers are looking to move away from commodity varieties and ways to add value, while some farmers using organic and no-till systems are finding that the available varieties don’t always fulfil their needs.

In contrast to commercial varieties, bred to thrive under the application of articial fertiliser and deep inversion tillage, varieties bred for farm businesses engaged in the system approach of organic farming and those using some agroecological methods need to have a potential to better pull nutrient from the soil and better ability to develop healthy relationships with soil fauna such as mycorrhizal fungi.

Today farming and food processing techniques are undergoing close scrutiny by researchers, farmers and other food businesses.

And now more shoppers are better informed and have a greater variety of shopping channels to choose from than at any time since the rise of the national multiple retail grocery outlets.


Where will we be in years to come?

The aim of Grain Lab is not to compete with commodity wheat and barley, but to champion those plant varieties that better enable farmers who are engaging in low-input farming to produce high quality crops and to add value to those crops both in ecological and economic terms.

Grain Lab will protect the development and use of ancient grains such as einkorn, emmer, spelt, and naked barley;

landrace wheat varieties such as Red Lammas; and will develop new varieties and populations bred more suited to modern food and farming where low input agronomy is the practice and nutrition and avour are vital elements to all in the food supply network.

An example of a project that could fall under the Grain Lab umbrella is the successful reintroduction of naked barley into the UK, now being grown and processed in this country for the rst time since the Bronze Age.

Another early stage project is the crossing of modern UK wheat with Tsiteli Doli, a Georgian landrace with a renown avour but which is not well adapted to grow in the UK climate.

The vision is for farmers to be able to market grain from their own strains of wheat and barley into short, integrated supply chains where the avour and provenance of the grain is celebrated and rewarded. What some are saying is a call for recognition of a British regional terroir.

By looking to help build new models and to foster closer collaboration among food and farming professionals Grain Lab is looking to foster innovation in food production that can lead to greater economic stability for food producers while also aiming to protect the natural capital involved in producing food.


The next step will involve communities, organisations and individuals, and through food processors such as bakers, people can come together to share food and to share knowledge of food production, food preparation and food enjoyment.


UK Grain Lab is supported by Harper Adams University & OF&G
Contact at Harper Adams is Edward Dickin
Contact at OF&G is Steven Jacobs

UK Grain Lab project

UK Grain Lab national event