M ost will agree the modern-day credo for agriculture is to pro- duce more product from less land, while at the same time using fewer finite resources. And in many countries, land use competition is intense and crops such as oats have to compete in that sce- nario. As a result, crop diversity means little in a market-driven economy. As the agrochemical investors concentrate on volume or high value end markets, oats, as a minor cereal and without crit- ical mass, are particularly challenged. Scientists, researchers and politicians all too often focus on the ubiquitous crops, ignoring the hidden treasures and potentials of others. European Seed looks at the unique properties and the potential that oats possess. It is a multi- functional crop that is used as a healthy human food, but also as high-quality animal feed or a grain with industrial and pharma applications. Oats are unique in that composi- tionally they do not contain gluten and have a soluble fibre, beta-glucan, which is increasingly recognized for its health delivering properties, being covered by an EU health claim for reducing the risk of coronary heart disease. In most oat breeding companies, increasing the levels of beta-glucan in both spring and winter husked oats whilst improving agronomic performance is a current quality breeding target. The health claim is further under- lined by the fact that oats were elected as the “Medicinal plant of the year 2017” in Germany, a title, which is only given to crops with scientifically evidenced clin- ical effects. Interestingly enough, multiple stud- ies have shown that people eating oats experience a so-called satiety effect, reserved for foods with an increased capacity to inhibit the appetite in the period after consumption. This is an area of considerable public interest, espe- cially in a society where obesity is con- tributing to numerous health problems. Understanding the mechanisms involved in this satiety process is an important step in identifying traits associated with this effect and how selection for these traits might be incorporated into the oat breeding programme. Oats in Europe are mainly used for feed. However, driven by health claims and greater awareness of the public for their health, oat for human consumption has attracted more attention; supermarket shelves filled with oat flakes, bars, mues- lis, as well as the gluten-free market. Oat fits well within the framework of sustain- ability, both for its modest needs in terms of nitrogen and fungicides as well for its positive effects on soil condition. However, the oat acreage EU-wide does not seem to increase substantially up to now. European Seed sat down with Ingeborg Westerdijk, oat breeder at Wiersum Plant Breeding and Steffen Beuch, oat breeder/head of breeding sta- tion at Nordsaat Saatzucht GmbH to learn more about this humble crop. OATS ARE A HUMBLE CROP “Our company has been involved in oat breeding for almost a century, as were many other companies in the years past,” says Westerdijk. “With a decreas- ing European oat acreage, many of these breeding programs were discontinued, resulting in a relatively small overall European breeding effort nowadays, when compared to wheat and barley. Therefore, one cannot expect the yield gain to keep pace with the yield increase in the main cereal crops.” Westerdijk explains that since less breeders are involved - often with, on average - smaller programs and devel- oping less varieties, the life cycle of oat varieties tends to be much longer. “At least this is a positive side-effect on the revenues for the breeder.” INCENTIVES TO BREEDING The best incentive to increase invest- ments in oat breeding would be a con- sistent increase of market demand, both for feed and food. Not only the earlier mentioned aspects for human consump- tion, but also a higher appreciation of the nutritional value of oat for animal hus- bandry, and there is considerable scope to diversify the oat crop as either a forage or biomass crop. “At the end however, it is impor- tant that it is economically attractive for the farmer to grow an oat crop,” says Westerdijk. “Ignorance breeds contempt; many of today’s farmers are not familiar anymore with this traditional crop and tend to see oats as a crop for marginal soils only, instead of a fully-fledged field crop. Managed well, oat can easily yield 9-10 t/ha under optimal growing conditions.” Beuch says yield and disease resist- ances are paramount breeding targets especially as there are a reducing number of effective agrochemicals. A Treasure Trove at the Sidelines of Technological Advances OAT BREEDING IN EUROPE. By: Marcel Bruins / Michelle Clarke 60 I EUROPEAN SEED I EUROPEAN-SEED.COM OAT BREEDING IN GERMANY * = Age group of release Source: Bundessortenamt Graphic provided by Nordsaat