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Andrew Tindall, patent attorney at Potter Clarkson, discusses the need for more diverse and drought resilient wheat crops, and the benefits that latest agricultural tech advances could have on health:

β€œThe challenges facing UK wheat are well known. Consumer demand is outstripping supply, even as the gluten-free sector continues to grow, while climate change is making it harder to successfully grow wheat.

According to published research, global wheat yield loss by the end of the century is predicted to be 7%, in the best-case scenario, and rising to as high as 22% if emissions continue to rise unmitigated.

The UK is not expected to escape these effects and there remains a need to improve wheat varieties in order to service demand whilst ensuring our daily bread provides adequate nutrition.

As global warming affects rainfall patterns, breeding wheat varieties with improved drought resistance is an appealing prospect. Modern plant breeding utilises extensive genetics and genomics to aid this process, however this remains difficult to implement in wheat, where complex genetics make identifying the genes responsible for drought resistance challenging.

TraitSeq, a spin-out of the Earlham Institute in Norwich, seeks to solve this problem. It applies cutting-edge AI to accurately predict complex agricultural traits and provide breeders with targets for their breeding strategies. Combined with new precision tools like gene editing, which is increasingly viewed by regulators as non-GMO, new wheat varieties could be years, rather than decades, away.

In addition to mitigating the effects of climate change on wheat growing, technology could help avoid it entirely.

Regenerative practices like pasture cropping – growing a blend of different varieties alongside livestock and cover cropping as used by flour supplier Wildfarmed – can trap carbon in the soil. Whilst this technology is ancient, new innovations can supercharge the approach.

For example, companies like FA BioAg are using soil microbes to develop biofungicides and biofertilisers for wheat, and this could be combined with regenerative practices to produce more grain alongside farming carbon.

Gluten sensitivity could one day be a thing of the past too. US-based IngateyGen are already using gene editing to develop hypoallergenic peanuts and, whilst removing gluten from wheat entirely is clearly undesirable, scientists may be able to engineer a modified structure that it does not trigger a response.

Indeed, wheat might one day even improve health. HotHouse Therapeutics, another UK spinout, is introducing new biosynthetic pathways into plants to produce pharmaceutical products, with the potential to be used with other medicines, vitamins, and nootropics, to produce wheat that not only nourishes but heals.

Despite its challenges, there are important and potentially lucrative opportunities for innovators in wheat technology, especially in the UK. An enviable biotechnology and plant science base can be combined with an extensive government commitment to boost food security through science and innovation.

Whilst the future of wheat farming in the UK is unknown, it is indisputable that the country is positioned to take a leading role in pioneering innovation.”