The research will review currently available data on the performance of varieties of crops grown for bioenergy and will examine the scope for, and feasibility of, a central varietal assessment system for Miscanthus and Short Rotation Coppice (SRC) willow and poplar crops.
The review of current data will be carried out through consultation with private and public sector companies engaged in breeding and production of bioenergy crops. Publicly available data will be collated in the first instance and augmented with information which we will request from breeding organisations and companies. The information will initially be of a disparate nature and it will be necessary to determine the reliability and robustness of the data sets obtained. These data will then be collated and analysed in order to carry out an audit of their quality so that a reliable data set can be presented for information. Particular attention will be paid to the presentation and form of the material and data so that it is accessible and will elicit confidence from all sectors of the industry.
Following on from the review of current data, the scope and feasibility of a varietal assessment system will be examined and recommendations concerning this approach provided. This will take into account the perennial nature of most biomass crops, the use of varietal mixtures, the traits measured and the need to compare performance of new varieties against existing varieties, as they become available.
A key aim of this work is to ensure that proposed systems would supply timely independent authoritative information to growers for their selection of bioenergy crop varieties. Experience and examples from the agricultural sector will be used to determine options for a least-cost system that is fit for purpose but recognising the long-term nature of testing the perennial plant species involved. A useful approach to modelling has already been undertaken in a Defra and DTI funded project (code: NF0409) and results from this will be used as part of the project development.
The use of results from breeders’ trials has been shown to be an effective and efficient use of resources in several agricultural crops. This approach will be used here and will help to address the issue of assessing new varieties against established material, which the Biomass Task Force identified as being crucial to delivering economic viability. Other scenarios with independent contracted trials operators may need to be considered. The important issue is to ensure that data from all trials are comparable and that results from different locations and operators can be combined. Testing will need to take into account the quality of planting material, suitability for location, effects of environment, diseases & disease resistance and pests. All these factors will be taken into account in the recommendations that are proposed.
Depending on the outcome of the research outlined above, it may be appropriate to determine a mechanism to develop supporting processes for the formal assessment of new varieties. The use of advisory lists to promote systematic uptake of new improved varieties has long been recognised in the agricultural sector as an efficient use of resource and could be appropriate here. It maximises the returns to breeders through the uptake of new material and that of growers by increasing productivity through improved yield, agronomic and disease resistance characters. It also enables a testing system to place emphasis on characters that enhance environmentally sensitive production methods. With the relatively long time-scale for bioenergy crops, the selection of an appropriate variety to meet environmental constraints, growing conditions, husbandry and end market is even more important.