Wheat breeding

Plant breeding is the science of adapting the genetics of plants to produce more desirable characteristics, in agriculture these typically include improved yield, in-field performance and end use quality.

Modern plant breeding uses a variety of techniques but the basic aim of all of them is to generate new genetic diversity and then select for plants with the most desirable traits.

Genetic improvement achieved through plant breeding has been a central pillar of improving agricultural productivity for thousands of years, the below table summarises some of the main improvements brought about by breeding in major arable crops to date.





Oilseed rape

Field beans

Field peas

Forage maize


Sugar beet

Increase harvestable yield

Increase by 0.7t/ha decade since 1980

92% increase in W.B & 87% in S.B since 1982

Improve harvest index and no. grain per sq. metre

0.5t/ha increase per decade since 1980

Little increase seen in last 10 years

Little increase seen in last 10 years

Focus on DM and starch yield

Focus on DM yield

Faster increase than any UK arable crop since 1980

End use quality

Bread making quality

Low β-glucan levels, low β-amylase

Naked oats, oil content

Decrease glucosinolate & fibre

Reduce tannins, amino acid content


Digestibility, energy content

Sugar content


Resistance to disease

Eyespot, Sept., rust

Mildew, rust, Rhyncho., Ramularia, Net blotch

Rust, mildew

LLS, stem canker

Leaf and pod spot

Pea wilt, Downy mildew


Mildew, Rhyncho., rust





Verticillium, Alternaria

Ascochyta, blight, rust

P. mildew, Ascochyta




Resistance to pests


Aphid, BYDV

Little work


Stem nematode resistance

Little work carried out

Corn borer resistance

Little work

BCN tolerance

Aphid, BYDV

Adaption to env. extremes

Drought traits identified

Drought traits identified

Little work

Little work

Traits identified

Traits identified

QTLs found

Drought tolerant

Traits identified


Impact in market place

Work in progress / development required

Examples of the impact plant breeding has had on specific traits in major arable crops adapted from a 2015 ADAS Review of Plant Breeding Objectives

The establishment of new varieties through plant breeding is a lengthy process with average times for varietal development ranging from six to fifteen years. In order to achieve marketable status varieties must undergo vigorous testing to determine their distinctness and value in order to enter onto the National List. National List varieties then undergo further evaluation in independent trials with the best performing varieties being published onto recommended and descriptive lists which provide the main source of detailed variety information for growers, advisers and end-users.

Recommended and descriptive lists for crop varieties in the UK are published by AHDB for cereal & oilseed and herbage crops, NIAB for forage maize, PGRO for pulse crops and BBRO for sugar beet.

Major plant breeding organisations with operations in the UK include DSV, KWS, Limagrain, Elsoms Seeds, Syngenta, RAGT, LSPB, Bayer, Senova and Saaten Union.

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