East Anglia: Plant breeders celebrate legacy of the Plant Breeding Institute

It was 100 years ago that the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) was established at Cambridge as part of a government scheme to stimulate the depressed rural economy.

Over the following decades, it was to transform plant breeding by producing more than 130 crop varieties and enabling farmers to boost yields of key crops including wheat, barley and potatoes.

Even today, two leading potato varieties – Maris Peer, dating from 1963. and Maris Piper, from 1966 – are still grown by specialist growers. And real-ale brewers including Woodforde’s of Woodbastwick and Mid-Norfolk maltsters, the Crisp Malting Group, still demand Maris Otter winter barley, bred almost half a century ago, to make the finest traditional award-winning beers.

The legacy of the PBI, which was privatised in 1987, was celebrated at a conference of almost 200 plant breeders from around the world at the John Innes Centre (JIC) at Norwich Research Park.

One of the organisers, Prof John Snape, who moved from Cambridge to Colney, started his career at PBI.

He said: “As well as producing iconic varieties of crops, it had enormous influence on the training of plant breeders and plant scientists in the UK. You can hardly go to an institution in the UK, Europe or even the world which hasn’t been influenced by the PBI.

“We’ve had people flooding in from the USA, Italy, Austria that spent their formative years at the PBI.”

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Another speaker and former colleague, Prof Dick Flavell, director of JIC between 1988 and 1999 before moving to California, was involved in research into the make-up and understanding of plant genes.

The success of the PBI, which was to shape the modern plant breeding industry, was quite astonishing. It was largely thanks to a remarkable scientist, Rowland Harry Biffen, who was influenced by a fellow Cambridge zoologist, Sir William Bateson, later to become the first director of the John Innes Institute.

In 1900, Gregor Mendel’s work on the inheritance of plant traits was rediscovered by Sir William. The implications of ‘Mendelian genetics’ were appreciated by Prof Biffen, who became Cambridge’s first professor of agricultural botany in 1908.

He had been testing Mendel’s theories in wheat and started plant breeding on the university’s Burgoyne’s Farm. In 1910, when the university bought the new Gravel Hill Farm, he was given plots. And in that same year, he produced a rust-free wheat, Little Joss, which was to be grown for the next 40 years. It was a cross between a widely-grown variety, Squareheads Master, and a Russian wheat with rust-resistance, Ghirka.

It is possible too that a number of influential Norfolk landowners may have played a role behind the scenes in promoting what became the PBI.

In 1908, the first farmer-owned and funded independent research farm at Jex Farm, Little Snoring, near Fakenham, had been set up by a group including Lord Hastings, of Melton Constable. Another supporter was Norfolk landowner Ailwyn Fellowes, president of the Board of Agriculture in 1905 and later knighted by King George V. He was deputy president of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, when the Royal Show came to Crown Point, Norwich, in 1911. The charity’s motto was “science into practice.” So what better way to encourage more productive farming than breeding new varieties including Little Joss, which was also grown at the Norfolk Agricultural Station, later Morley Research Centre.

As a result of this exciting new variety, the Board of Agriculture set up the PBI and Prof Biffen, later knighted in 1925, became the first director. And in the dark years of the first world war, he produced another triumph in 1916 – the landmark wheat variety, Yeoman, which could be grown in Britain. It combined the better disease resistance of a Norfolk variety, Browick, identified in the mid 1800s on R Banham’s farm near Wymondham, and the bread-making quality of Canadian Red Fife.

“He then realised that if you can combine the quality of a Canadian wheat with the adaptability of a UK wheat, it could produce varieties such as Yeoman and Holdfast [in 1936],” said Prof Snape.

It later led to the establishment in 1919 of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, also nearby in Cambridge, which had the statutory responsibility for testing and then later marketing the varieties bred by the PBI.

In the post-war drive to boost food production, encouraged by the Agriculture Act 1947, plant scientists rose to the challenge too, producing a string of winners including Maris Otter in 1963, and Maris Widgeon wheat the following year. A total of 121 new varieties in all crops were launched from 1950 as breeding programmes were expanded as eventually PBI employed about 250 staff including 130 scientific officers.

Recognising the value of the seed industry, the government created the NSDO (National Seed Development Organisation) in 1964 to collect royalties from taxpayer-funded research. It was a financial success with about 80pc of its �10.8m revenues by 1985 coming from the 130 PBI crop varieties. Another prominent south Norfolk farmer, James or JD Alston, of South Lopham, was also an influential chairman for almost a dozen years until 1983.

The PBI’s prefix, Maris, which was first used in the early 1960s became known around the world. It actually owes its name to Maris Lane, which connected Trumpington High Street to Granchester, said Prof Snape.

When the decision was taken to privatise, the PBI and NSDO were bought for �66m by Unilever, later sold on to Monsanto in 1988. But the Treasury had to forgo �38.8m of these total receipts because a far-sighted institute secretary, Denys Hadden had obtained charitable status for the PBI in 1968.

This money was ploughed into major improvements at the John Innes Centre under the leadership of Lincolnshire farmer William Strawson, who also attended the centenary conference, when the ‘research’ side of the PBI was transferred to Norwich in 1990.

Initially, about 120 staff moved to what became known as the Cambridge Laboratory, where the statue of its founder Sir Rowland Biffen now has pride of place in part of what became the John Innes Centre three years later. This investment programme enabled the internationally-important collection of wheat, barley and also peas to be stored on the Colney site, which became home to the Unit of Nitrogen Fixation after it was moved from Sussex.

As the work continued through the 1920s, another great innovator, Dr GDH Bell, later PBI director from 1947 to 1947, masterminded the barley-breeding programme. In 1943, the first winter-hardy malting barley, Pioneer, was launched and then 10 years later, Douglas Bell’s spring barley Proctor saw the acreage of barley triple to produce about six million tons during the 1950s and 1960s.

The cereals-breeding programme was central but PBI also started work on sugar beet in the 1940s, albeit without as much success. It had more luck with legumes including winter and spring beans, peas, oilseed rape, kale, lucerne, red clover and many species of grasses including Timothy.

The work continued into other crops, notably potatoes, as a programme started in 1939 to introduce resistance to potato blight from wild species. Ironically, almost 70 years later, the John Innes Centre started a three-year trial with two varieties of GM potatoes containing blight-resistant genes from wild relatives.

“PBI was a trail-blazer in things like soya, forage maize, navy beans and many different crops. Some never took off because they could never adapt them to UK conditions,” said Prof Snape.

A Norfolk farmer’s son, John Bingham, who lives at Mattishall, near Dereham, was to propel the PBI into the major league of plant breeders after he joined the programme for wheat-breeding in 1954.

He and his team broke the dominance of foreign wheats with Maris Huntsman in 1972 – raising yields by almost 15pc over rival varieties.

“He produced varieties which were a quantum leap in the field by incorporating a mixture of French and German material into UK germplasm,” said Prof Snape.

The PBI also won a remarkable four Queen’s Awards for technological innovation with the first awarded in 1973, and signed by then prime minister Harold Wilson for the winter wheat programme.

Two years later, another followed for a brassica, marrow stem kale, and then a further award in 1982 for the maincrop potato variety, Maris Piper, which had accounted for 24.2pc of the national crop area the previous year.

A fourth award in 1987, which was the year of PBI’s demise, was awarded for producing a range of quality milling and bread wheats including Avalon and Mercia. In that year, its wheats accounted for 90pc of the country’s acreage and more than 86pc of UK cereal crops had been bred by PBI.

“Two years ago, we celebrated the centenary of the John Innes Institute. And next year will be 50 years since the founding of the Unit of Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory and this year, it is 100 years since the founding of the PBI.

“We wanted to show that the PBI’s influence has continued. It is still going on through the people and through the science. It shows that plant sciences are alive and well and continues to benefit