Plant Breeding and Yields

Genetic improvement and the consequential productivity benefits are key components of the continuous enhancement and competitiveness of the Irish farming industry. This statement applies to all agrisectors, including cereal growing. In the same way that technology has evolved in every other enterprise globally, so too have plant breeding techniques. Key characteristics such as yield (see Table 1 below), lodging resistance, plant health, and overall grain quality have improved significantly in recent decades - a recent NIAB/BSPB commissioned study found that almost 90% of the increase in average cereal yields over the past 25 years can be attributed to innovations in plant breeding. (NIAB is the National Institute of Agricultural Botany and BSPB is the British Society of Plant Breeders Ltd.)

Table 1: Irish Recommended List Reference Yields (tonnes per hectare)

Crop / Year19992009Difference
Winter Barley 8.20 9.28 + 1.08
Winter Wheat 9.56 10.54 + 0.98
Spring Barley 6.70 7.68 + 0.98

Typically, plant breeding contributes 1.0 - 1.5% yield improvement per annum (the above example has demonstrated an average of 1.0% per year).  Applying this improvement to a 10 t/ha crop of winter wheat, an additional return of 100 kgs per hectare per year is obtained. In terms of cost benefit to the grower, this represents a 2:1 return on investment over six years if the royalty is collected via certified seed*.

* Wheat valued @ €160 per tonne, seeding rate of 175 kgs per hectare

Plant breeding and the commercial introduction of a new variety is expensive and time consuming and on average takes 10 years before a new variety is ready for the market (see Table 2 below).

Table 2: New Varieties - 10 years in the making!

YearGenerationNumber of LinesSelection Criteria
1 F1 800 Initial crosses made by plant breeder
2 F2 2,000,000 Family of plants grown from crosses
3 F3 400,000 Disease and field characters, yield and stability tests
4 F4 12,000 In-house quality tests using marker technology
5 F5 1,200 Grow out of plots plus in-house quality tests
6 F6 300 Industry end-use testing, yield evaluation
7 F7 50 Screening plot trials run by Irish seed agents
8 F8 5 Best varieties entered in National List Trials
9 F9 3 Best varieties advance to National List Trials (yr 2)
10 F10 1 New Variety completes National Trials and is added to the Recommended List,
C1 seed is assembled by seed merchants and sold on Irish farms


This process has to be continually funded to ensure viability. Therefore, each variety introduced to the market is protected by Plant Breeders Rights (a form of intellectual property rights) which safeguards a return on investment to the parent breeding company. Certified seed is the principal mechanism by which royalty income is returned to the plant breeders to fund their continued investment in new variety development.