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Understanding and dissecting the genetic control of key "environmental impact" traits in forage grasses and legumes - IF0145

Concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, and diffuse pollution of waterways have strengthened the need for farming systems that are environmentally and economically sustainable. Grassland represents more than 70% of the UK`s agricultural land and the development of systems of land use and livestock production with reduced environmental footprints is essential if this need is to be met.

There are strong policy drivers for this including the EU Water Framework Directive, the Nitrates Directive, the current revision of Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ), and UK obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. At the same time there are increasingly strong economic incentives for farmers to reduce fertiliser and concentrate use and wider concerns about food security which point towards the need for a strong focus on efficiency throughout the cycle of meat and milk production.

New roles for grasslands have also been identified including their potential for carbon sequestration. Their genetic diversity also provides a source of genes for adaptation to climate change.

Forage grasses, especially perennial ryegrass, and legumes (white and red clover) are key components of agricultural grasslands across the UK. The proposed research builds on existing programmes of genetic improvement of grasses and legumes at The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) and the use of its unique genetic resources. IBERS was formed on April 1st 2008 from the merger of IGER with two departments of Aberystwyth University (AU), and is now itself part of AU. This work has demonstrated genetic improvement with respect to `environmental sustainability` traits and shown the potential impact of novel varieties with these traits at farm and catchment level. Breeding programmes of grasses and clovers at IBERS are successful, reflected not only in the position of varieties on the Recommended List and wide uptake on farms but also in the award of the RASE Technology Award in 2007 and the award to AberDart of the NIAB Variety Cup-the only forage grass to win this prize. In the past these programmes have introduced significant innovations with respect to forage quality and effects on animal performance. The breeding programmes, whilst retaining these aims is now developing unique approaches to reducing the environmental footprint of UK livestock agriculture whilst adapting to climate change and maintaining competitiveness in the face of rapidly rising input costs.

Variety development will continue under Sustainable Livestock Programme LINK funding with considerable industrial support (outlined below). In this proposal we seek to build the understanding, tools and resources that will underpin future breeding for a new range of traits important for the multifunctional grasslands of the future.

The proposed work uses the extensive genetic resources found in the UK grasses and clovers to deliver environmental sustainability traits to UK grasslands. It is focused on the contribution that genetic improvement, allied to appropriate management, can make to reduce the environmental footprint of current livestock agriculture and also on exploiting the role of grasslands in the mitigation of, as well as adaptation to, climate change.
Modern techniques in plant breeding (non GM) will be used to develop germplasm with the potential to make a significant contribution in three key areas.

(i) Adaptations to climate change through improved grassland design to reduce soil compaction and overland flow that leads to flooding, and soil and nutrient run-off. Changes in shoot and root architecture will also be employed to reduce soil erosion and to improve soil stability. Taken together these targets in redesign of grassland species will reduce diffuse pollution of water and phosphorus and will thereby aid compliance with the EU Water Framework Directive.
(ii) Enhancing the carbon sequestration potential of grasslands as a contribution to climate change mitigation. Genetic variation for key traits involved in C sequestration will be identified.
(iii) Improving the stability and resilience of grasslands through the use of multi-species mixtures. We will study multi-species swards in comparison with monocultures or grass/clover swards with respect not only to stability and resilience but also in terms of their effects on the delivery of ecosystem services (e.g. clean water).

Our developing understanding of the genetic control of key environmental sustainability traits and their incorporation into new varieties forms an important part of the pipeline enabling knowledge transfer between basic and applied research through into farming. The projects outlined here will form an essential intermediary component of that pipeline whereby initial promising outcomes achieved through fundamental BBSRC funded research are continued, developed, and tested for their efficacy and scaled up in order to judge their potential and suitability for take-up by future Defra LINK and/or Industrial partners. The outcomes of the research will assist UK farming in combating climate change and the UK in developing the appropriate strategies to deliver agreed Governmental and International Directives, priorities, and commitments. As such they will help address major areas of concern for Defra, the Environment Agency, the UK Water Industry and other stakeholders responsible for safeguarding, maintaining, and improving the quality of precious UK resources from the more extreme consequences of climate change and the need for environmentally sustainable grassland agriculture.
Time-Scale and Cost
From: 2008

To: 2013

Cost: £1,013,943
Contractor / Funded Organisations
Institute of Grassland and Environment Research (IGER)
Climate Change              
Integrated Farming Systems              
Livestock Farming              
Plant Genetic Resources              
Sustainable Farming and Food Science              
Sustainable Farming Systems              
Water Quality              
Water Quality and Use              
Water Use