NIAB ‘superwheat’ and Scientific Bias

NIAB on Huntingdon Road, Cambridge

NIAB on Huntingdon Road, Cambridge

Well, it’s not every day that the Institute you’ve been studying for three years reaches the news. There are a number of things I could write about, but I thought seeing as the BBC article highlights one particular problem, I would write about that. It is a problem about time, one which I want to turn into a problem about bias.

“It will take at least five years of tests and regulatory approval before it is harvested by farmers.

Some farmers, however, are urging new initiatives between the food industry, scientists and government.

They believe the regulatory process needs to be speeded up to ensure that the global food security demands of the next few decades can be met, says the BBC’s Tom Heap.”

Seeing as this message comes from Tom Heap, I can imagine it will form a central part of the Countryfile television programme to be broadcast tonight at 18:00 on BBC One and BBC One HD, Sky 141 and Virgin 108.

This problem – of the time it takes to develop, test, multiply and release a new variety – is as old as nationally funded plant breeding. It is not older than that, as without national regulatory standards, private plant breeders were not known for delaying the release of their products. For as long as NIAB has been responsible for the trialling of varieties and their subsequent release onto the market, the Institute has come under fire for not doing so quickly enough, or not as quickly as some other organisation might. On the surface this appears to be a problem about red tape, pencil pushing and risk; balancing the desire for new highly productive varieties against the risks of not thoroughly testing such varieties. However it is also an argument about trust, not just in sufficient testing, but in where this testing takes place. To phrase the problem as a question: How can an institute that breeds new varieties and has a financial interest in their success, also be responsible for their testing?

Those of you who know a little about NIAB might think this is a question that could only be asked recently. After all, for the majority of its history NIAB has not been breeding plants itself, but trialling and multiplying those produced elsewhere. It is only in the past decade or so that the Institute has been breeding its own varieties. (I have been asked to clarify what I mean by this point, due to concerns that it makes NIAB look as though it will be releasing ‘So-and-So Variety TM’ some time soon. While I would actually quite like to see the Institute do this, it was not what I meant to describe. I was using the term variety much more generally to describe a population of plants with shared ancestry and breeding history – from which a marketable variety will eventually emerge. Apologies for any confusion, but it’s also an interesting example of shared language across communities, no? – 7/6/2013) Under such circumstances, how could there have been any question of the Institute’s objectivity? Well, while this is certainly true, it overlooks the very close relationship that existed between NIAB and the Cambridge Plant Breeding Institute (privatized in 1987 by someone who probably didn’t invent soft ice cream). For over fifty years NIAB was responsible for the trialling and marketing of the varieties produced at the PBI. Its reputation and bank balance profited from this work, and its objectivity was accordingly brought into question.

To take one example, during the 1930s many private breeders, and apparently many farmers (though, and as with Tom Heap above, the views of the latter were most often expressed by other people on their behalf) complained that NIAB’s six-seven year delay between the testing and eventual commercial release of a new variety was far too slow. In response, NIAB attempted a new strategy. While in the past they had tested all the varieties simultaneously for three years, subsequently spending two years multiplying the seeds of those they found to be the most successful, they would instead begin multiplication of one or two promising varieties after the first years trials. If, after the three years, the horses they had backed turned out to be old nags, they would happily turn them to glue. Or would they? Having initiated this programme, they soon found it difficult to maintain their objective position considering the large resources poured into one or two select varieties. What is more, who chooses the varieties that are going to get special treatment? Some plant breeders are going to do very well out of this arrangement. Weren’t they more likely to have been the breeders who had met so-and-so Professor’s wife at a spring rowing scones pavilion gala race last summer? Snarf snarf! (Before you think I am stereotyping, I should remind you that we are discussing an institution in Cambridge).

No, this wouldn’t do. As the Director at the time wrote, “The existence of these large stocks of seed might well be held to prejudice the Institute’s decision as to whether that particular variety should be marketed or not: and in his opinion, it was most undesirable that the Institute should lay itself open to any criticism on these lines.”

The contemporary picture is somewhat different. As we know, NIAB is now releasing its own varieties (see above clarification point – 7/6/2013), something that perhaps only could have arisen once the Institute had lost sole responsibility for varietal trialling. Today, while NIAB still conducts its own trials, a number of organisations participate in the process nationally, the most prestigious leading to the annual publication of Recommended Lists, overseen not by NIAB but by the Home Grown Cereals Authority. How all these changes came about deserve books, documentaries and t-shirts in their own right.  For now though, I hope this post has given these problems a little historical perspective, and depending upon the content of tonight’s programme, might even prove useful to some of you.



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