Scientists will go wild with £4.9m plan to sow a better class of oats

A £4.9 MILLION plant breeding programme to produce better varieties of oats was announced yesterday.

Crop scientists at the Scottish Crop Research Institute at Invergowrie will play a major role in the research, which aims to develop new varieties to provide significant economic and environmental benefits for growers, millers and the animal-feed industry.

Increased demand for safe, healthy and nutritious food or feedstuff, together with increased agricultural energy and fertiliser costs and the need to farm in a more sustainable manner are among the drivers behind the study, said Dr Derek Stewart, head of plant products and food quality at the Invergowrie institute.

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Stewart listed a number of health benefits from this most traditional of Scottish crops. He said it could help to reduce cholesterol, could cut the risk of cardiovascular disease and could influence blood pressure. It also belongs to a group of foods that release a steady flow of energy.

He said: "Oats are a valuable 'break' crop in cereal rotations reducing disease and weed problems, require less fertiliser than wheat, perform well in marginal areas and are a high-value animal feed which can be grown and fed on-farm."

Stewart went on: "At SCRI, we are successfully combining fundamental research on plant genetics with plant breeding techniques to develop commercially viable plant varieties that help meet the challenges of food, water and energy security, and environmental sustainability."

Commenting on the announcement, the Scottish Government's rural affairs secretary, Richard Lochhead, said he welcomed the involvement of SCRI in the research.

He said: "Many people believe Scotland produces some of the finest-quality oats in the world, and there is an increasing demand to farm in a more sustainable way and produce safe and nutritious food and feedstuff.

"The Scottish Government is part-funding this five-year project through a 480,000 investment, as part of our commitment to supporting our world-renowned science base and farming industry.

"This should benefit not only the scientific community, but also boost Scottish agriculture and stimulate wider economic growth. I hope this research will also provide significant health benefits as more Scots turn to oats as part of a healthier diet."

Apart from the Scottish Government funding, the 4.9m five-year project has cash from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Defra and the Welsh Assembly.

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The new research project is being led by the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Ibers) at Aberystwyth University in Wales.

Oat varieties developed at Ibers account for nearly 70 per cent of the UK oat seed market, with a retail sales value in excess of 2m. One variety, Gerald, developed by the Ibers is the most widely grown winter oat with 45 per cent of the market, while a dwarf naked oat variety accounts for about 5 per cent of the total winter crop.

Oats are traditionally an important animal feedstuff and modern varieties fit well into rations. The team will also develop oats that provide a high-energy feed for poultry and cattle that may also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing methane output..

In a novel and innovative development, the project will also investigate the possibility of using oats to manufacture important platform chemicals for the plastics, cosmetics and wider food industry.